Workplace incivility may be subtle, but its effects are not. Incivility in higher education is on the rise. Incivility is much more than yelling at a coworker. In fact, use of a condescending tone, interruption, treating people as invisible, and unprofessional terms of address with coworkers and supervisors are telltale signs that a civil environment is lacking. Mistreatment is associated with increased levels of stress, turnover intentions, and counterproductive work behavior as well as decreased levels of job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and actual performance. Research has shown that working in a supportive and cohesive environment increases actual job performance and decreases stress.
Individuals who are in a toxic department are more likely to disengage from any and all participation in department functions, including refusing to serve on committees, not advising students, not participating in department or university social functions, spending less time in the office (as well as limited time physically and emotionally at the university), and not caring about the operational efficacy of the department. The following are warning signals that indicate a department is dysfunctional:
- Low morale
- High turnover
- Increased early retirement
- Increased absenteeism and tardiness
- Work quality of once-productive people is diminished
- New faculty are struggling to survive
- Increased illness and health issues
- Greater percentage of people “working from home”
- Lower or poorer work quality
- Increasing faculty isolation and alienation
- Low participation in governance
- Low research productivity and poor performance evaluations
- More grievances filed
One mean-spirited, toxic person can ruin a once-great department. You cannot “smile away” a person’s noncollegial and uncivil behavior. The best way to minimize the negative impact of a toxic person is to recognize the behavior and address it quickly and consistently. In my experience in working with institutions of higher education to address this problem, I have found that administrative inaction wittingly or unwittingly sanctions future perpetuation of incivility. An organization is only as stable as the people at the top. This statement is further reinforced by the fact that deans, provosts, and presidents only remain at a specific university for a brief time and then move on to another position at another university.
A strategy that I have found that works is to strongly encourage all faculty members to take personal responsibility for the quality of their academic community and the professional behavior of their colleagues. It is all too easy for a faculty member to indicate that the reigning in of a noncollegial colleague is the sole responsibility of the department chair or the dean. It is more effective, however, when all significant people speak out in unison that a person’s abhorrent behavior is not acceptable. People should be ever-mindful of the fact that a culture of incivility begins to actually support the person/people causing the problems through reinforcement that eventually becomes ingrained in the academic culture. Thus, this culture can easily become institutionalized within the university, strengthening it negatively and transmitting it to the next generation of faculty. Collective action powerfully controls uncivil individuals. Higher education needs a supportive, motivating organizational structure and a cooperative, enabling academic culture.
Robert E. Cipriano is professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University, a senior partner at ATLAS (Academic Training Leadership & Assessment Services, an internationally recognized consulting firm), an advisory board member of Academic Leader. His most recent book is titled A Toolkit For College Professors (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Contact him at email@example.com.