SINGAPORE: In the black comedy Horrible Bosses, three friends conspire to murder their overbearing, abusive bosses and hilarity ensues.
Movie-goers might view the film as a satire on relationships. It is certainly easy to see the scenes of workplace harassment and the murderous plot it ultimately inspires as rather extreme.
Nonetheless, workplace aggression is a serious issue, can take many forms and its effects on organisations is only just beginning to be understood.
INCIVILITY AND LOW-LEVEL MISTREATMENT
According to a 2011 survey by a global jobs portal, 64 per cent of more than 16,000 workers polled around the world said they had been bullied and were either physically hurt, driven to tears, or had their work performance affected as a result.
Yet there are also other forms of workplace mistreatment, less overt than bullying or physical abuse, which can be highly damaging.
With demands increasing for more cross-team collaboration within and outside the workplace to enhance connectivity and hence productivity, employees seldom work in silos.
As these pressures grow, interactions between staff can give rise to friction. Without checks and balances, even seemingly minor acts of incivility, such as ignoring a co-worker persistently, rudeness or disregard for others, can cause some surprising negative effects.
When individuals are singled out and treated with incivility, they may feel stressed, blame themselves or withdraw from social interactions, according to a recent study we undertook with colleagues at Oregon State University.
However, when the mistreated individual shares the same bad experience with a colleague, the impact of the harm is diminished.
A SMALL EXPERIMENT WITH SURPRISING RESULTS
As email is a common form of workplace exchange within the workplace, we devised an experimental online game scenario in which 240 individuals were asked to interact with other users on a small creative project using an email system.
The game was designed to place participants on the receiving end of low-level bullying behaviour, or witness another participant being mistreated. However, unknown to the participants, the other members of their assigned teams were actually computer-generated avatars.
Individuals in the game nearly always blamed themselves when faced with aggressive behaviour. However, the extent of self-blame diminished when individuals experienced such behaviour as part of a group.
While the shared experience makes it less stressful, it can also result in larger consequences.
The results suggest individuals take cues from how they view others being treated and that can impact their workplace performance, creativity and helpfulness towards others.
Targets of incivility who were ignored, undermined in front of others, or experienced abusive supervision tend to have difficulty recalling information and are more distracted at work.
These in turn can have a significant impact on an organisation’s overall productivity and morale.
As workplaces become more interdependent, it is imperative for employers, supervisors and co-workers to pick up on tell-tale signs before real damage is done.
However, more often than not, little action is taken – perhaps because of a lack of awareness among employers over ways to monitor and prevent such behaviour.
In Singapore, for example, the Ministry of Manpower’s tripartite advisory group guideline on Managing Workplace Harassment noted a myth of workplace harassment - that many believe it is a matter of personal relationships, and not for employers to intervene in.
This myth suggests that conflicts of a personal relationship are nearly always met with little or no intervention by employers or HR staff.
Yet there are effective steps employers can take. To curb bullying behaviour within the workplace, firms can formalise work policies and build in intervention mechanisms to reduce or prevent incivility.
A first step would include clearly defining what constitutes uncivil acts in the workplace. From there, firms can devise training programmes for employees about incivility, to be incorporated into performance appraisals.
Knowing what to look out for, supervisors can periodically review the tone used in their team’s interpersonal interactions and communications.
Being alert to uncivil verbal or written interactions would help identify specific areas for mediation in a timely manner.
MANAGERS MUST BE PARTNERS IN THIS ENDEAVOUR
Second, firms should encourage managers to intervene and point out inappropriate behaviour when they arise. It is important for top management to lead by example, and managers should be reminded not to “close one eye” when they observe employees behaving uncivilly to each other.
Yet managers may not be aware of uncivil episodes between staff. Individuals may behave uncivilly to single targets in private, even though some may publicly lash out at multiple people.
Third, simple prompts and reminders for civil exchange could be built into organisations’ internal messaging systems to curb incivility before it begins. These intervention mechanisms will help employees refrain from blaming themselves, and reduce other harmful effects caused by mistreatment.
In order to curtail incivility, more organisations need to emphasise civil behaviour in their HR policies. Given the mild character of uncivil workplace behaviour, targets, perpetrators, bystanders and leaders should intervene early, instead of dismissing it. This will help build more cohesive and productive work environments for everyone.
Ultimately, bad behaviour can be curbed if there is support from top management.
Sandy Lim is Associate Professor in the Department of Management and Organisation at the National University of Singapore Business School.