We the Partnership

Does it really pay to be civil?

By Christine Porath
December 5, 2018 | Updated on July 1, 2021

We live in a divisive time. Career federal leaders often find themselves caught in between their duties to the American people and their need to cooperate with stakeholders in the White House and on Capitol Hill who may have competing priorities.

Regardless of this tense environment, it’s important for federal leaders to model civility. Showing respect and kindness isn’t only the right thing to do—it’s also effective.

Studies by the Center for Creative Leadership show that the number one characteristic associated with executive failure is “an insensitive, abrasive or bullying style.” The third is “aloofness or arrogance.”

Power can force compliance, but disrespect or insensitivity by someone wielding power can sabotage support. If incivility works at all, it’s usually effective in the short term but not for building enduring leadership success.

I’ve learned that how you treat people determines whether they will build relationships with you, trust you, follow you, support you and work hard for you. Respectful people usually collaborate more easily, in part because they have more people willing to collaborate with them.

Our research has shown that people viewed as civil tend to occupy more important positions. They connect ideas, information and people, and they cross boundaries more effectively in organizations. More respectful people reap a windfall of networking and personal benefits, whereas those seen as uncivil get shut out of networks and all the benefits that come with them, such as information, advice and career opportunities. In one study I did, participants were far more likely to recommend a civil person for a job than an uncivil person.

Civil behavior pays off in other ways, too. Studies I performed with Alexandra Gerbasi at the University of Exeter in England and Sebastian Schorch at the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia showed that people tend to associate civility—defined in this study as treating someone respectfully and with dignity, politeness or pleasantry—with being a leader. In a study we did at a biotechnology firm, those seen as civil were twice as likely to be viewed as leaders than those deemed uncivil, and they performed 13 percent better.

So, yes, civility pays. Nice people don’t finish last—they finish best. Given the enormous cost of incivility—and the power of civility—it’s in your best interest, and your organization’s, to master civility. Being kind will manifest in connections, influence and effectiveness. My research confirms that small behaviors, such as thanking people, listening attentively, humbly asking questions, acknowledging others, sharing credit or smiling, can give you a performance boost. The converse—seemingly insignificant acts of incivility—can cost you.

[For more on the research, please see this TED talk.]

Christine Porath is the author of “Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace” and a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She is a member of the Government Leadership Advisory Council, a group of experts and champions informing the Partnership’s leadership development strategy.

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Photo: TED