Incivility, Creativity, Innovation

If your organization or team relies on innovation or creative problem solving for its success, then you have a vested interest in ensuring that civility levels on your team are high.

Research by Christine Porath and Amir Erez shows that study participants who were exposed to rudeness from a person of authority or from a peer performed more poorly on creativity tasks than did those who were treated in a civil fashion.

For example, they report that participants who had been treated badly and then asked what to do with a brick proposed solid yet uncreative ideas such as “build a house,” “build a wall,” and “build a school.” On the other hand, participants who were dealt with in a civil manner and then asked the same question, came up with much more imaginative ideas for things to do with a good old brick. Their suggestions included “sell the brick on eBay,” “use it as a goalpost for a street soccer game,” “hang it on a museum wall and call it abstract art,” and “decorate it like a pet and give it to a kid as a present.

When people feel that their ideas might be belittled or their input rudely dismissed, they become risk averse. They shift into survival-and-safety mode. In this mode, creative problem solving is inhibited and conformity reigns. After all, why would you take a risk if you anticipate that a colleague or manager will roll their eyes at your idea or make a dismissive comment?

Civility means that everyone’s expertise and input is respected. People feel safe to contribute, each in their own way. When one person dominates a discussion or displays uncivil behaviour toward others, this will affect the group’s ability to think creatively. In fact, research from Carnegie Melon University suggests that the presence of a dominant person on a team can make that group stupid. These researchers compared the collective intelligence of groups where one person dominated the discussion with the groups where the conversational turns were distributed more evenly. (The good news: You can do something about it and if the person happens to be a manager who is persistently abrasive, there are things that your organization can and should do to prevent or address it.) According to Anita Williams-Woolley, the lead researcher on this paper, teams where more people participated in an even way in performing tasks such as visual puzzles, negotiations, brainstorming, games and complex design assignments did better than those who had a dominant member.

Bottom line: the case for civility is clear. The challenge, as always, is how to lead by example and, conversely, how to respond constructively when someone is not as civil or professional as you’d like them to be.

(The above is a modified excerpt from Trust Your Canary: Every Leader’s Guide to Taming Workplace Incivility.)

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