Hop, Skip, and Leap to Conclusions!

Do people really intend to be dismissive, belittling or inconsiderate when they engage in those seemingly insignificant behaviours that we refer to as workplace incivility? (The eye roll, sarcastic comment, little put down, harsh tone, a dash of juicy gossip etc.)

Truth is, we’ll never know.

If asked what they were thinking or intending, the person who engaged in the behaviour will say things like, “I wasn’t aware I did that,” or “I was simply frustrated,” or “I was stressed out,” or “that’s just how I speak,” or perhaps “sometimes the only way a person will hear you is if you use a tone or words that spell it out for them,” or “it was nothing—why make a big deal about something so minor?”

In short, when we are on the offender side, we:

  1. Aren’t aware that we did it in the first place, or
  2. Don’t realize the impact we’re having on the other person/s, or
  3. We find ways to justify our conduct, both in our minds and out loud

Meanwhile, the person on the receiving end is busy doing his or her own mental gymnastics. Instead of giving the person who initiated the behaviour the benefit of the doubt (“she didn’t really mean it,” or “he’s under a lot of stress”), they jump to the conclusion that the behaviour was intentional—it was an outright attack on them. When on the receiving side, stressful thoughts set in swiftly and aggressively.

We humans are meaning-making machines. All too often we leap to assumptions and explanations that are imbued with rich drama (“she humiliated me on purpose!,” “he drove right over me with a bulldozer!”) and from there, with a quick hop and without ever pausing for a deep breath or a moment of rational evaluation, we land ourselves in one or all of:

  1. Self-doubt, insecurity, anxiety and humiliation (within a nanosecond we’re back in grade three when we were not selected for the team)—we experience withdrawal and discouragement, and/or
  2. Retaliation—we plot schemes for getting even, because hey why not give that person a bit of their own medicine (after all, they deserve it), and/or
  3. Exaggerated negative conclusions about the larger environment and our place within it—“my useless manager does nothing to stop this behaviour,” or “nobody cares about me here so I should lower my work effort in return”

Sometimes it’s hard to comprehend why we let ourselves fall into these dark labyrinths of the mind in reaction to low-intensity uncivil, unwanted behaviours. Being in Velcro mode can lead us to lots of unnecessary self-inflicted pain. My question for you is: The next time you’re on the receiving end of a behaviour that is not as courteous you had hoped, what might you do differently?


As a reminder, for those of you want to join my July 7 Conference Board of Canada webinar (Demystifying the Abrasive Leader: Finding the Path to Change), contact me to benefit from the 50 per cent discount the Conference Board is extending to anyone in my network.

As always, contact me directly anytime, to talk about anything, including our workplace civility training workshops or how to help change an abrasive leader anytime.

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