By Susan Rosegrant
Lisa Marchiondo is the winner of the 2011-2012 Robert Kahn Fellowship for the Scientific Study of Social Issues.
Lisa Marchiondo is very polite. She makes steady eye contact, doesn’t interrupt, and responds to emails quickly and courteously.
But then, she would.
Marchiondo, who will receive her PhD from Michigan’s Department of Psychology next month, is studying the impact of incivility in the workplace on individuals and on organizations. It’s an area of research, Marchiondo says, that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. “It’s so low level, it’s hard to address,” she says. “Yet despite the fact that it’s low level, it has really profound consequences,” like low productivity, burnout, and even early retirement.
Marchiondo defines incivility as behavior that breaks the norms of respect, and that a majority of people would consider rude—behavior like not returning emails, or ignoring or excluding a co-worker. According to her research, such behavior is disturbingly widespread: In one of her studies, 88 percent of respondents reported experiencing incivility in the last year. But Marchiondo isn’t just looking at prevalence. She also wants to see how different people interpret and experience uncivil acts.
Marchiondo, 28, got the inspiration for the study in school. One professor was so bad at returning emails and so blunt in dismissing student comments that a portion of the class wanted to file a joint complaint. Yet others faced with the same behavior accepted it. “That really sparked my interest,” she recalls. “What forms these different opinions, and how does that relate to people’s outcomes?”
For her dissertation, Marchiondo conducted two large-scale surveys, the first of 424 women workers in Michigan, and the second of 479 working men and women nationwide. The data confirmed her hypothesis: The way targets interpret uncivil acts determines their impact. For example, an employee who thinks her boss isn’t answering her email because he doesn’t like her feels much worse than one who thinks the boss is just busy. Marchiondo was also surprised to discover that a small percentage of employees feel they can grow from uncivil treatment. “You wouldn’t go into this thinking somebody could actually see this as a learning opportunity,” Marchiondo says, “but being able to pinpoint that and see how it influences people helps expand our knowledge of people’s sense-making of these kinds of events.”
“It’s important for organizations to prevent the occurrence of incivility, because you don’t know how people are going to make sense of it, and it’s difficult to address retrospectively,” Marchiondo says. “Organization leaders have to be models, not only through their behavior but in talking about it and saying, ‘Be aware of how you’re behaving.’”
Marchiondo, who in August will join Wayne State University as an assistant professor of psychology, says incivility appears to be on the upswing. One possible explanation is that more overt misbehaviors like discrimination and harassment are now illegal, but people can still get away with being rude. “It’s important for organizations to prevent the occurrence of incivility, because you don’t know how people are going to make sense of it, and it’s difficult to address retrospectively,” she says. “Organization leaders have to be models, not only through their behavior but in talking about it and saying, ‘Be aware of how you’re behaving.’”
To this end, Marchiondo is pleased to have served on a civility committee at ISR. One of its proposed initiatives? To establish and foster norms of respect among faculty and staff. It’s an important consideration, given that in Marchiondo’s studies more than 60 percent of people say the incivility came from someone hierarchically above them. “It is often a top down thing,” she says.