Changes for Better or Worse: How Ambiguous Situations Resolve Themselves

You would think that people working in a civil group would rarely encounter incivility and you would be correct. For the most part.

Civility is generally incompatible with rudeness, but it isn’t entirely absent. Anyone can be inattentive or slip up on occasion. It’s only human.

What’s more interesting are workgroups that report both a positive level of civility along with frequent encounters with incivility from coworkers. What’s with that? Perhaps there is a generally pleasant team that gets along well, but one person who is consistently rude. Or perhaps members of a workgroup that gets along well have regular encounters with members of other workgroups with whom interactions are tense. They are the Teamwork with Adversity Groups.

On the flip side are groups that score low on civility but also low on incivility. For these groups, not much is happening among people. They are Emotionally Flat Groups.

When looking at our data over time, it was clear that these two types of groups—Teamwork With Adversity and Emotionally Flat—really occur, but they are rarer that the consistent groups: Functional Groups (High civility, low incivility) and Dysfunctional Groups (Low civility high incivility).

There should be a chart here!

When we followed up these groups one year later we found that that the consistent groups were more stable: The majority of people in Functional Groups at the beginning still rated their groups as Functional a year later; most of those in Dysfunctional Groups at the beginning still rated their groups as Dysfunctional a year later. But most of the people in the Teamwork with Adversity Groups and the Emotionally Flat Groups had resolved the inconsistency one way or the other. Very few were still in an inconsistent group.

So, what predicted whether they moved to rating their group as Functional or Dysfunctional?

The things that predicted whether people went one way or another was a cluster of measures:

The ones who resolved things towards rating their groups as Dysfunctional experienced their colleagues as more rude, behaved more rudely themselves towards their colleagues, and justified their rudeness as the only way to deal with such difficult people at work.

These results suggest that the direction of change is a function both of an individual’s circumstances (coworker incivility) as well as the individual’s behavior (behaving more rudely towards others) and attitudes (self-justification for that rude behavior). Changing for the better is more likely for people who can avoid responding rudely to others’ rude behavior.

An important message here is that working relationships are shared. Individuals are never 100% in control of their encounters with other people. Each person makes a contribution. And individuals always participate in their relationships. A relationship—even a momentary encounter with a stranger—is a shared creation.

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