Login | Contact

Airing Out the Office: How to Keep Toxic Behaviors from Overwhelming the Workplace

danger-44457__180Have you ever come into work after a long weekend and the smell of new carpet or paint was overwhelming? The first thing we want to do is open a window to let in some fresh air. If we cannot air out the room fast enough, we get headaches and have difficulty concentrating because of the fumes. Incivility in the workplace operates like these toxic fumes. Consultant Sharone Bar-David says, “Workplace incivility refers to those seemingly insignificant behaviors that are rude, disrespectful, discourteous, or insensitive, where the intent to harm is ambiguous or unclear.”  The behaviors can include a co-worker who repeatedly avoids saying hello in passing, the team who leaves for lunch without inviting you, eye rolling while another team member is talking.

Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s book Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2010) specifically discusses put-downs based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. Insensitive comments such as, “I’m not a racist, some of my best friends are black,” and “You are very articulate… [for a woman; Hispanic; Asian, etc.]” are usually uttered by people who mean well and do not understand the hurtful impact. These “Micro-insults” are especially damaging because the message is ambiguous—was that an insult? We frequently avoid addressing a micro-insult because others may accuse us of overreacting. However, leaving uncivil behavior unchecked accumulates like toxic paint fumes until the work environment becomes unbearable. So what would it mean to open the window and let in the fresh air in a workplace setting?

 Letting in the fresh air requires us to…

  • Name and claim the impact on us.

Dr. John Potter of Southern Methodist University devised the Feel, Felt, Find strategy for handling micro-aggressions and other incivilities. It is important to use this tactic with an attitude of curiosity and openness, not hostility. Start by asking a question, “You feel I may not speak fluent English because I look Hispanic? I’m sure other people have felt like you do. However, since you don’t know me very well, I think you will find that I grew up in Idaho and English is my first language.” Feel, Felt, Find lets us address a vague put down without attacking or getting defensive.

  • Take responsibility for our feelings

One of our quickest reactions to criticism is blame. I made mistakes on the project because Bob is so annoying. He never says hello and rolls his eyes when I have an idea. This ritual complaining attempts to get sympathy from others at work, shifting the responsibility for my work performance onto Bob. Dr. Brené Brown explains, “Blame is simply the discharging of discomfort and pain.” Blame limits our ability to problem solve and to grow relationships. When we have a problem with a boss or co-worker, its best to handle it directly with the person involved using “I” statements and explaining the impact on us. Bob, I wonder if you know how important it is for me to get this project right. If you have questions or concerns about my work, will you please discuss it with me? Rolling your eyes when I talk doesn’t give me helpful feedback.

  • Examine our questions

Dr. Marilee Adams says, “Great results start with great questions” (Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, 2004). We can create a “judger” or “learner” mindset by the questions we ask. Judger mindset is reactive, inflexible, judgmental of self & others, and self-righteous. A learner mindset is flexible, accepting of self and others, and inquisitive. When we feel hot buttons pushed, we frequently ask “judger” questions such as Whose fault is this? Why is this person so clueless and frustrating? These questions lead us to negativity and despair. If your boss has you re-do work that seemed acceptable, ask some “learner” questions: Why might she want it done another way? What pressures is she facing from her boss? What am I missing here? What is important to her? A learning mindset helps us create and connect with others, immediately airing out potential toxins in the room.

Even in a difficult work environment, we have the power to choose our responses. Escaping the blame game and taking responsibility for things that impact us creates psychological fresh air. For more strategies to handle uncivil behavior at work, listen to Pattie Porter’s interview with Sharone Bar-David as they discuss her book   .


Wendy Mayfield

Graduate Student Intern

Southern Methodist University Master’s Program Dispute Resolution & Conflict Management

Leave a Reply

  • Subscribe by Email

    Join our mailing list to receive our newsletter and blogs!

  • Recent Posts