Rebecca sat in her office, chin in hand, thinking about the recent team meeting. Her face burned with humiliation as she remembered how her employee Seth, a direct report, had responded to her instructions. She felt his disrespectful behavior, in front of the entire team, had made her look incompetent, and she wasn't sure how to handle it.

Timothy was returning from lunch and happened upon two of his employees embroiled in an intense argument. As the disagreement grew more heated, the men began calling each other ugly names. Timothy started walking faster, concerned that things were about to get physical. As he broke into a run, he wondered how the situation had gotten so bad, so quickly--and how he was going to keep the two men from fighting in the future.

The Common Thread: Disrespectful Behavior

What do these two stories have in common? Each is an example of disrespectful behavior in the workplace. Each describes a scenario where at least one person is left feeling uncomfortable-or worse. Disrespectful behavior in the workplace takes many forms, from subtle comments, raised voices or name calling, to physical fighting. Rude behavior in the workplace causes problems ranging from lost productivity, increased stress, a negative impact on the workplace environment and employee retention.

Managers need to address disrespectful behavior head-on. And squelch it. Fast.

Creating a culture of what's expected in terms of respectful communication is key -and getting the team to buy into that. We have to get better at calmly letting those who are disrespectful know it's not ok. Sometimes it's the case that team members are unaware their behavior is considered impolite and its a matter of cluing them in. In other cases, the action may be intentional and calls for more severe consequences. Either way, the ability to give clear, constructive feedback, and coaching are two skills crucial for managers to learn in order to have productive conversations leading to awareness, change, and better productivity.

The Impact on Business

In their article, The Cost of Bad Behavior, Christine Porath of the McDonough School of Business, Georgetown University, and Christine Pearson of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, described their findings after surveying nearly 800 managers and employees across 17 industries.

According to Porath, writing for Quartz, forty-seven percent of those who were treated poorly intentionally decreased the time spent at work, and 38 percent said they deliberately decreased the quality of their work. Sixty-six percent reported their performance declined and 78 percent said their commitment to the organization had declined. 

"Research also shows that working in a group where incivility is present affects people's mental health even after accounting for general stress and the incivility an individual personally experienced," states Porath. "You don't have to be the targeted population, or the employee who gets ripped publicly to be negatively affected."

Is it disrespect or a cultural difference?

What is perceived as disrespect can, at times, be a difference in understanding based in cultural differences. For example, in the business world, brutal honesty (for better or for worse) is often times appreciated. However, this is not a universal opinion, rather, an attitude that could unknowingly cause great offense. Allowing others to save face is a valuable cross-cultural skill. Before you take action on an employee's rude behavior, take a moment to assess any cultural differences that may be in play. 

And then, train your team, as a rule of thumb, never to do anything to embarrass another person, either in that person's eyes or the eyes of others.

Squelch disrespectful behavior.

It is imperative that you make it clear that you will not tolerate uncivil behavior on your team, and then be prepared to take action. Encourage your employees to share their frustration when they experience rude behavior, whether it's face-to-face, email correspondence or virtual contacts via phone or video meetings. Let them know you are interested and concerned.

You may need to take disciplinary action. This is an uncomfortable reality. But if you don't, the incivility will continue, and negative behaviors may spread through the team. 

How to create a culture of respect.

Karin Dames describes a culture of respect as "...as the walls protecting you and your team from the harsh elements, keeping your employees and customers loyal, supportive and productive." Creating a culture of respect in the workplace takes work, and focus and commitment. But respect is essential, the glue that keeps a team together and functioning optimally, and empowers each individual to strive for continuous improvement.

"Leaders set the tone," states Christine Porath. "A study of cross-functional product teams revealed that when leaders treated members of their team well, and fairly, the team members were more productive individually and as a team."

So, as the leader of your team, or the manager of your direct reports, it's on you to do the initial work to create the culture of respect. Where do you start? You start by leading by example. Model courteous behavior, listening and asking open-ended questions. Build, or strengthen, the relationships you have with your employees. 

As I've said before, spend time with your team and get to know each other on a personal level. Because, when you build relationships, you build a strong foundation of trust so that when conflicts inevitably arise, you're equipped to handle them.

Published on: Jul 19, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.