Micro-Inequities, Bias, and Incivility

I sometimes get asked about the relationship between micro-inequity and workplace incivility. With current racial tensions and police bias in the USA in the background, let’s take a look at this question.

Micro-inequity refers to the subtle, often unconscious ways in which individuals are devalued, overlooked, ignored, or otherwise discounted based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender—through facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, choice of words, nuance, and syntax (Wikipedia). Workplace incivility, for its part, refers to low-intensity, seemingly insignificant behaviour that is rude, inconsiderate, discourteous, or insensitive with ambiguous or unclear intent to harm.

Clearly, there is a significant chunk of workplace interactions that would readily qualify as both uncivil and micro-inequitable. Think, for example, about a person affected by Asperger’s or one with a strong accent whose contribution in a team meeting is overlooked or ignored as people move impatiently to the next person’s idea. Or consider the young female whose work is continuously dismissed by a middle-aged male colleague. Do these comprise plain old incivility activities or are these actions propelled by (conscious or unconscious) bias that is based on the group to which they belong?

Well, we will probably never know. In fact, the perpetrator might not be aware of his or her own bias. We don’t always know our own heart, particularly the darker parts of our hearts. And there are so many variables in a situation that it is close to impossible to decipher the extent to which prejudice and bias are at play. This is especially true when based on a single interaction.

I consider incivility an “equal-opportunity offender.” That is, we can be uncivil to people anytime, anywhere, and regardless of who they are or what they did (or didn’t do) that may have triggered our uncivil conduct. However, incivility certainly can be rooted in some ingrained bias related to particular groups. And it is precisely in that junction that it converges with the concept of micro-inequity.

We humans have a tendency to feel more at home with those who are like us, and less comfortable and possibly suspicious or even fearful of the “other.” We possess an inclination for bias, even if we truly and wholeheartedly want to be unprejudiced and enlightened and treat everyone as equal. The true challenge is: How do we deal with these internal biases within ourselves, and, more importantly, how do we make sure that we do not act on them, even if only in subtle ways that might show up as micro-inequities?

(Before going further, I feel compelled to comment briefly on the impact to the person on the receiving end of these micro-inequities. They might seem minute to an observer, but for those being affected, there is nothing “micro” about these seemingly insignificant behaviours. They hurt and sting and upset and humiliate in ways that cut to the core of one’s emotional and physical being.)

So let’s assume for a moment that you and I want to do better and avoid acting on our bias through micro-inequities.

The place to start is by knowing thyself. Below are some questions to ask yourself when you are working with someone who is different from you by virtue of them belonging to a group whose characteristics are unchangeable. These questions offer you ways to recognize that you are possibly under the influence of bias.

Are you…

  • Making judgments about the person based on preconceived ideas?
  • Feeling a bit uncomfortable in their presence for reasons you cannot pinpoint?
  • Avoiding that person?
  • Experiencing inexplicable unpleasant feelings?
  • Having irrational thoughts? What are they?

If you answered yes to any of these, what a gift! You now have the beginning of a thread to work with and grow from. Embracing our fallibility and moving beyond it to true awareness and enlightened action is a lifelong journey. At least for me.

This is the last blog post before the summer holidays. Happy summer!

As always, contact me directly, anytime.

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.

Three More No-Nos for New Leaders

iStock Woman's Eye 000077538133_MediumI’ve been thinking lately about the unique trials and tribulations of taking on a leadership role for the first time, or taking on a new team, and decided to add three more no-nos to my original three, and the fourth I added later. So here goes—would love to hear your own reflections on this too.


No-No #1: Don’t buy into the “you can’t change someone’s personality” myth.

Many of the leaders I’ve worked with have fallen into the trap of thinking that there’s nothing you can do to change a person’s disagreeable or difficult personality, no matter how damaging it is to teamwork and culture. I call this the George Will Be George tale—thinking that as a manager you can’t change George’s behaviour because that’s just who he is, like an old dog that supposedly can’t learn new tricks. This line of thought leads to tolerating uncivil or otherwise unacceptable behaviours.

My take: true, you can’t change someone’s personality but you certainly have the responsibility (and privilege) to require them to check the disagreeable parts of their character at the front door when they enter the workplace, and bring in with them only those elements that are cordial, collaborative, professional, and civil. Attitude—of the right kind—is an integral part of the job.


No-No #2: Don’t lose your eyesight.

When you enter your new role as leader, you bring a fresh set of eyes and unobstructed observation skills. You can see dynamics, entanglements, incivilities, weaknesses and strengths with great clarity. Your inner canary too will be acutely attuned and sensitive. But as you get inducted into the culture, your eyesight is at risk of becoming foggy and your canary’s alerts might get muffled. My advice: try maintaining that original lucidity for as long as possible.


No-No #3: Don’t let your newness lead you to accept bad behaviour.

With the clarity of your vision and that active canary by your side, take action to address uncivil, unprofessional or non-collaborative behaviour early on. In my training and coaching sessions I often hear about perceived obstacles to taking action (“I need to pick my battles,” “I need to first get the full picture,” “these are engrained problems that will take a long time to resolve”). But if you don’t take at least some steps that demonstrate the type of culture you are striving to create, you will generate the impression that it’s business as usual, which will make it even more difficult to initiate change later.


On a different note, I am thrilled to share the following discount opportunity: On July 7th I will be presenting a webinar on abrasive leaders for the Conference Board of Canada (Demystifying the Abrasive Leader: Finding the Path to Change). The Conference Board has graciously extended a 50 per cent discount off the $199 webinar fee to people in my network. If you or a colleague are interested in attending, just let me know and we will provide you with the details ASAP.

As always, contact me directly, anytime.


Ah, Those Juicy Swear Words

Recently my work took me to several organizations in different industries that had one notable thing in common: the accepted use of swear words at work. Here are some of the reasons people used to explain this habit:

  1. Our work is stressful—it’s a natural outlet.
  2. We act professionally with our clients, but can let loose with one another.
  3. We need to vent.
  4. It’s an expression of my authentic self. Those who don’t like it should get thicker skins.
  5. It’s just how we do things around here—it’s embedded in our workplace culture.
  6. I do it only with people whom I know are okay with it.
  7. After a frustrating interaction with a customer where I was patient and kind, I have to release steam.
  8. I know which lines not to cross. For example, I would never swear at someone.
  9. It’s always been like this in our industry.
  10. Management does it too.

True, organizations vary, customers can be utterly frustrating, and some jobs are especially stressful. And yes, in some industries swearing is practically a rite of passage.

Using swear words can feel really good. They’re juicy, colourful, and provide a satisfying outlet. In fact, research even shows that they help alleviate physical pain—people who used an expletive were able to immerse their hands in ice water twice as long as folks who hadn’t used a profanity. (But wait! Later findings indicate that those who swear on a daily basis show no such improvement in pain tolerance.)

Even the best of us will occasionally blurt out the wrong word at the wrong time. I have fond childhood memories of my father using every morsel of self-control at his disposal to avoid using foul language, and then on occasion despite himself blurting out a colourful curse in his Dutch mother tongue, much to our delight.

But what about the use of ongoing, habitual bad language at work?

Well, at the risk of alienating those of you who work in (and are comfortable with) workplace cultures like those I described above and who might think that my Pollyannaish views will destroy all the fun and authenticity, and at the risk of  boring those of you who work in non-swear environments, I decided to share my view on this matter.

So let’s call a spade a spade: swearing is uncivil. It is considered bad manners in cultures and religions worldwide.

With this in mind, here’s my recommendation: cut it out. Chances are that if your clients (customers, patients, stakeholders, funders, you name it) were to see what really goes on behind closed doors, they would lose faith in your company’s professionalism and integrity, with all that that implies. (Plus, would you feel proud for them to see it in the first place?)

And chances are that if you took a closer look at your organizational values you would see that using profanities contradicts or at least erodes each and every one of them.

To boot, swearing looks bad on the person who is doing it. It doesn’t make you appear smarter, funnier, measured or emotionally intelligent. And you are likely inadvertently offending or engendering fear in some of those around you without even knowing it.

Shaking off a profanities habit is difficult—for individuals, for managers, and for organizations who strive to align the culture with values and superb customer service. It may take time, gumption, and lots of effort, but it’s worth it.



P.S. Language is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal. Check our previous blog posts on the effects of speaking a second language on the job, the ways the language we choose shape our thinking, and the use of sarcasm.

And, as always, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions or to ask about our services.

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.)

Want to learn more? Have challenges to solve?  
 Contact me directly, anytime. 

Will Civility Destroy All the Fun?

“This is one of those emails that you type to blow off steam and then erase as a ‘boy I better not say this’ moment.” So began a spirited email I received from a man who recently participated in one of my workplace incivility training sessions.

He continued: “I am giving serious thought to writing my own book called The Case for Incivility. In our efforts to achieve civility in the workplace, we will remove common sense. Our halls will run silent. Our conversations will be contrite and disturbingly stale. Far worse, no one will know how to express their dissatisfaction for fear of reprisal because ‘how can anyone argue against civility?’ People will live in fear that what they say or do will make someone complain about them. Is this the civil workplace you envision?”

Wow, what a great email—I love it!

And no, that is not at all the workplace I envision.

I have at times seen people react with visceral fear to the notion of a civil and respectful workplace. They are concerned about the death of fun, spontaneity and camaraderie. They are worried that political correctness will sanitize the workplace and bring all these to their fatal demise, leaving behind robotic (and boring) semi-human clones. Or that minor mortal mistakes will turn everyone into what a workshop participant once called “a walking HR bomb.”

You may have experienced this reaction yourself, even if only for a fleeting moment, perhaps accompanied by a longing for the good old times. I, too, had wondered about this matter on occasion. But with time, the countless stories people shared with me about being impacted negatively by incivility or harassment changed me. As I delved deeper into the field of civility and respect, I became a convert.

So, here’s my take.

Civility does not and should not mean that corridors fall silent. On the contrary: it means that there should be more laughter, solidarity, and participation by all (rather than just, say, those who possess more social power or are crusty and sarcastic such that their colleagues are afraid to ever say anything that could spark their wrath). Surely we can have a fun and lively workplace that is still civil. Humour does not have to be at someone’s expense, friendships can thrive without excluding others, dissenting opinions can be shared without belittling or dismissing, and frustration can be expressed constructively without resorting to eye rolling.

The civility and respect message is more about dos and less about don’ts: treat others as you would like to be treated. Play nice in the sandbox. Show regard. Be considerate in words and actions. Be open to feedback. Explore your blind spots to learn how you can do better. Apologize when you screw up. Develop your Teflon shield. Have a generous spirit and give people the benefit of the doubt. And above all, strive to be a Real Human Being—someone who steps up, lifts up, speaks up and yes, shuts up too.

The civil workplace is one that maintains a Healthy Body state, as opposed to one with a persistent allergy, chronic infection or acute disease. It is a place not entirely void of incivility—after all, how could it be if it is filled with living human beings who, like you and me, inadvertently say or do the wrong thing from time to time? Rather, it is a space where everyone does their best to be respectful, take responsibility for their mishaps and is open to feedback. It is an environment where people feel comfortable calling out others on their behaviour (constructively!), where sticky situations are dealt with and people move on. It is an environment in which everyone strives to be a decent and conscientious corporate citizen.

The case for a civil workplace is strong and compelling. True, we have to be careful that the pendulum does not move into the realm of paralyzing political correctness. But from what I see, we have a far way to go before there’s a real danger of that happening. For now, let’s focus on kicking civility and inclusion up a notch, so that everyone in our work environment can perform at their best because they feel safe and respected.


As always, contact me anytime to explore whether and how we can help your team or organization.





Okay, So You’ve Messed Up

Recently I found myself in a bit of hot water. My well-intentioned attempt to keep a fast-moving situation from getting out of hand was perceived as excessively curt, even crossing the line into rudeness-land.

I learned about this gap between my good intentions and the negative perceptions after the fact through honest feedback I received from someone who was present when it happened.

Learning that you may not have been as gracious as you’d like to be and in fact may have caused some upset is not a pleasant experience, and all the more so for someone who speaks and writes about incivility.

I did my best to remedy that situation, which got me thinking more broadly about strategies to implement when we’ve messed up and need to do some repair work. Here goes:

  1. If you suspect that you missed the mark, seek feedback. Sometimes you get an inkling that something didn’t come across well—a subtle physical reaction from the other person, a facial expression, a silence, or even just an intuitive perception that something isn’t right. If you sense this, chances are that something indeed went awry. Seek feedback on the spot or shortly thereafter. In my case, I had a feeling right in the moment that something was “off,” but it was fleeting and I left it behind me as we all moved on to the next thing. I should have instead followed up shortly thereafter with something like, “I sense that something wasn’t quite right in the way I responded—did you have a similar perception?”
  2. Demonstrate openness and gratitude. When someone is gracious enough (or sufficiently brave) to share with you that you were uncivil or abrasive, listen carefully to what they have to say and show appreciation for their effort. I was fortunate that the person giving me the feedback was candid yet gentle, but that is not always the case. The person might provide feedback in an emotionally charged way that will trigger your defensiveness. However, this does not detract from the validity of the feedback or the need for you to demonstrate openness and appreciation. We all have blind spots so here’s our opportunity to do better.
  3. Make it a learning conversation. Ask clarifying questions to understand their perspective on what exactly went wrong. Knowing the details will help you recognize what you need to change next time. Furthermore, your questions demonstrate much-needed genuine concern for their experience.
  4. Discuss ways to fix it. What remedy will make the person feel that things have been resolved to their satisfaction? Inquire what they would like to see happen and offer suggestions of your own. For example, if the issue is that you made a disparaging comment to someone in front of others, a reasonable remedy might be that you circle back to those who were present and clear the person’s reputation with them too.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s easy to feel badly and spiral into the dark abyss of self-blame when you realize that your actions caused distress to others. Feelings of shame and regret make us human, and it’s okay to dive there for a few minutes (as I indeed did). But then get up, pull yourself together, and figure out how to fix the mess you’ve created. A good apology that clearly outlines where you erred and the impact it has had, accompanied by a sincere and specific commitment to do better, will go a long way.

None of us is perfect. But there are two pieces of good news that are not to be sneezed at: First, we can strive to do better each and every day. Second, taking action to genuinely listen, acknowledge, and correct usually has a positive impact on the other person—and on the relationship itself.

Good luck on the journey!

As always, contact me anytime.

What Does a “Constructive” Response Actually Mean?

For several years I’ve been doing my own informal qualitative research: I usually start training sessions by describing a workplace incivility scenario, the likes of which most everyone in the room would have encountered. I then say, “Raise your hand if you know how you would constructively deal with this situation.” On average, less than 5 per cent of folks raise their hand.

It’s the word constructively that causes them to pause.

Any one of us can recall examples where our response was, well, less than productive. Sometimes things got worse. We may have been left with scars, perhaps reluctant, anxious or fearful to deal with things next time around.

So what does it actually mean to respond constructively when you experience incivility (or, for that matter, any unwelcome behaviour)? Here are key ingredients that go into the mix:

  1. Set a “no scorched earth” goal. Your objective should be to build the relationship rather than damage it. Shape your response accordingly.
  2. Think “addressing,” not “confronting.” The way that we think about a situation has a profound effect on how we approach it. When you think that you need to confront someone, your mind immediately categorizes the situation as adversarial and your whole being goes on battle alert. Rather than telling yourself that you need to confront the person, I recommend thinking in neutral terms such as addressingdiscussing, dialoguingexploring or dealing with.
  3. Express your reaction in a measured way. Tone it down. Conveying your emotions in all their colourful potency will overwhelm the other person and reduce rational thinking. The same is true if you resort to sarcasm.
  4. Choose your words prudently. Words can inadvertently turn a situation from constructive to destructive in a big hurry. The interaction will become charged and you won’t even know why. One word to avoid is but (“I know you may have intended well, BUT…”) as it triggers defensiveness.
  5. Control your body language. You can use the best-selected words, however non-verbal communication that is laden with strong feelings (anger, resentment, hurt, retaliation) will trump all else.
  6. Only the facts, please. Sharing the labels or conclusions you’ve attached to the other person’s motives or personality (“You have zero respect for anyone else’s opinion”) will escalate the situation. Stick to the facts: What would a video camera capture, without the help of a narrator? What would a fly on the wall have seen or heard when the problem occurred?

The new year has just begun. What do you plan to do differently this year to avoid destructive confrontations and benefit from constructive explorations?


On a different note: I am thrilled to share the following discount opportunity: On February 16 I will be presenting a webinar on workplace incivility for the Conference Board of Canada (Trust Your Inner Canary: Taming Workplace Incivility.) The Conference Board has graciously extended a 50% discount off the $199 webinar fee to people in my network. If you or a colleague are interested in attending, just let me know and we will provide you with the details ASAP.

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

Three Good Wishes

iStock Snowman and Kids

In January of this year I offered my thoughts on three things to do in 2015. Now, as the world struggles to find answers to exceedingly difficult challenges, please allow me to wholeheartedly extend to you three personal wishes:

  1. A wish for choice. We have the capacity to be good, kind, considerate and thoughtful. We also possess an impulse to be judgmental, unkind, dismissive, and much worse. It’s up to us to make the choice—sometimes dozens of times a day.

    I wish you a year of making good choices.

  1. A wish for effective coating. It’s so easy to take a victim stance—“she did this to me,” “he did it on purpose”—or to get offended because of something that someone said or did. It’s the old Velcro reaction vs. Teflon coating dilemma.

    I wish you a year of non-victimhood, a year of celebrating your generous spirit and extending the benefit of the doubt.

  1. A wish for questioning. In the secret labyrinths of our minds, we all to often have a need to be right, to have unlimited monopoly on who should do or say what, when, and exactly how. But this need to be right robs us of much of the richness that comes with truly observing, listening, paying attention, and being open.

    I wish us all a year of living in the question. A year of humility, curiosity, and an openness to being utterly in the wrong.

Happy holidays and a fantabulous new year!


As always, contact me anytime, this year—or next.


Ten Mental Barriers to Stepping Up

If you have refrained from taking action to deal with incivility in your workplace, you must have had good reasons to do so. Or at least you persuaded yourself that you did. You spared yourself the effort, thought and courage that would be required to step up to the plate.

Here are the top ten common thoughts that might be preventing you from taking meaningful action. Which of these apply to you?

  1. The behaviour in question isn’t really that serious.
  2. The person (or persons) behaving uncivilly is too powerful for me to take on.
  3. As long as the customer doesn’t see this, no real damage is done.
  4. These problems are too engrained in the culture.
  5. I can’t change this alone.
  6. Things will sort themselves out.
  7. It has always been like this.
  8. This environment is significantly more respectful than my previous workplace. I should be content with what I have.
  9. If I do something, who knows what else might happen.
  10. Doing something about it will demand too much time and effort.

Truth is, in some instances there are indeed reality-based reasons to avoid action. For example, when your own boss is uncivil or senior management sets a bad example. Or when there is no commitment at the top to maintaining a civil organizational culture. But much of the time, the obstacles lie within your own mind and heart.

It’s only human to experience the above Top Ten thoughts and the anxieties, fears and sense of immobilization that they trigger. Avoidance is natural and understandable. But here’s the problem: if you and everyone around you succumb to these thoughts, how will things ever change?

*   *   *



Access free learning tools, articles and other resources for you and your team.

REAL™ Solutions for Abrasive Leaders

Find out how you, as a senior executive or HR leader, can help restore the effectiveness of an abrasive leader.

Training Services

Discover how our training programs will energize and grow your people.

Organizational Solutions

Find out how we can help you with organizational development and initiatives.
Copyright © 2015 Bar-David Consulting. All Rights Reserved. Website by Geist Creative.