How Workplace Civility Supports Psychological Safety

Civil exchanges among people at work have a comforting quality. They don’t need to be a big deal. A smile, an exchange of greetings, a tiny favor let you know you belong. That message has value because belonging means the world is a safer place.

In contrast, incivility signals risk. Even the slightest slight raises a danger signal. People neglect their manners when interacting with people who are not all that important. They become actively rude with people who do not belong to their community but exist on the other side of a boundary. People have the capacity to create boundaries at a glance, so it can be difficult at times to know whether you share a sense of community with people you encounter occasionally.

The previous post emphasized the role of psychological safety in establishing the conditions that build resilience among members of a workgroup.

Leaders serve an essential role in shaping civility among members of a workgroup. Their behavior has a symbolic value. Employees attend more closely than you could imagine to the nuances of their interactions with themselves and with their fellow employees. They take cues from leaders’ behavior to determine ways of interacting. The leaders’ behavior conveys not only what is acceptable but more than that it conveys the way to behave if you wish to improve your status in the organization.

Points for leaders on Taking Civility Seriously:

Measure It! The first step in any improvement program is measurement. There are excellent measures of workplace civility and incivility at various levels and from various parties. People are forthcoming about the frequency of their own civility and incivility towards others. Ideally, an organization assesses the quality of workplace civility across all of it work units, summarizing the results into easy-to-understand profiles.

Take Action! The strongest statement a leader can make about respect and civility is to take action to confirm standards. Employees’ efforts toward civility need encouragement. Ignoring behavior that violates standards of civility and respect drown out any words one can say on the topic.

Keep the Conversation Alive! Civility and Respect don’t look after themselves. Leaders need to initiate conversations on these issues to keep the topic alive and relevant to people in the workgroup. Add civility to meeting agendas and refer to the topic in a positive way when talking about the group’s challenges and potential.

What could you do today to move things along in the right direction?


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    How important is to state clearly what is civility in our workplace, and do that with the participation of all the members. In this point, the conversations are essential and the time leaders spend in conversations, never could be a waste of time.

    Leaders must be convinced about civility and respect, in order to became themselves, the reference point with their example.

    This post encourages me to follow an study about values among employees of my institution. It could lead us to define indicators of what we consider divility and respect in our specific context.

  2. Heriberto
    Thanks for your insight on this point. Although there are some widely shared qualities of civility, each group has its unique point of view on what it means to be civil and respectful. You are wise to have a conversation among members of your group about their values on these issues.

    I wish you well.

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