top of page

How Managers Can Encourage Greater Civility In the Workplace

This article was based on episode 163 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get Robin’s Best Practices for Giving and Receiving Feedback guide when you become a member at

The value of respect in the workplace has garnered quite a bit of attention. Of course everyone wants to (and deserves) to be respected, but sometimes we have to take a step back and start with the concept of civility. You don’t have to respect someone to treat them in a civil manner. Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and CEO of Live in Their World, a company that uses virtual reality to address issues of bias and incivility and upskill employees for respectful engagement, offers simple steps we can take to ensure our colleagues experience a civil workplace. Robin shares basic tools that every manager can incorporate to increase sensitivity and encourage constructive dialogue.


Civility: How Your Words and Behavior Affect Others

Civility is more than just being polite. It’s about thinking how your words and actions impact other people, and adjusting your behavior accordingly. It’s what psychologists call the “Theory of Mind”, in which we develop theories in our own heads about how other people will hear and respond to something we say or do. This hypothesis allows us to determine whether sharing that joke, using that language, or expressing that emotion, for example, is acceptable.

Censoring ourselves in this way is something most of us do all the time. As Robin put it so well, while marginalized groups have always felt the need to monitor themselves on the impact of their words, those in power may not have traditionally felt a need to do so. Now, as movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter and LGBTQ+ rights are gaining awareness and momentum, more people are gaining awareness of how their actions and words impact others.

Incivility: Jokes Can Hurt

Incivility often takes the form of low level but frequent forms of disrespect. They range from interrupting a colleague during meetings to cracking hurtful jokes. They may or may not be personal; they could be regularly targeted at a specific person or come from someone who’s just rude to everyone. It’s also important to recognize that while the person you’re speaking to may not be part of the demographic, they may still be affected by your comments. For example, while you may not be gay, you may have a gay son or close friend, and any comments about a gay person may still feel personal and painful to hear.

Microaggressions: Disrespecting Personal Identity

If the uncivil behavior veers into disrespecting someone’s personal identity, it’s classified as a microaggression. When this happens, the person isn’t seen as an individual but as a demographic group, with either positive or negative associations. Examples include assuming someone who is Asian is good at math (“You’re Asian, why don’t you do the calculations for this project.”) or that a woman is not skilled at data analysis (“I don’t want to overwhelm you with the data analysis since it’s a tough one. Better to let Jim handle it.”). These assumptions are based on stereotypes of their demographic rather than the individual’s capabilities.

While blanket statements can be hurtful, it’s also important to recognize that there may be real challenges and pain points associated with being part of an historically marginalized group. Being “blind” to difference isn’t the answer either.


Backtracking Is Important

When you realize that you may have said something that offended a colleague - even if it’s days later - backtrack. Apologize for what you did and verbally commit to not doing that again. Ask your colleague how they felt when the incident occurred and listen to their feedback.

Get Feedback And Build Trust

When you ask for feedback for how your employees feel in the office, really listen. Employees can tell when a manager sincerely wants to learn and grow, or when they are asking questions because they feel obligated. You can ask for feedback on how you can better support them as a manager, learn what people’s pet peeves are or inquire about anything that has been troubling them. Do this during a one-on-one meeting or using an anonymous survey.

Be aware of the power dynamics; only in trusting situations will employees feel safe enough to honestly share their true feelings with their boss. One of the best ways to build trust is to listen to feedback and then act on it. This demonstrates that you take input seriously and will encourage people to share openly going forward.

Take Turns Being The “Process Person” At Team Meetings

It’s hard for meeting leaders to facilitate the conversation, keep track of time, move through the agenda, and pay attention to engagement. To build greater awareness of how disrespectful behaviors may show up in meetings, assign a role of “process facilitator”. Team members then take turns being the “process person” whose job it is to look for problematic behaviors like interrupting, dismissing ideas, or disrespectful comments. This role elevates the importance of engaging appropriately during meetings and gives each person the opportunity to practice looking for and acknowledging these behaviors.

Support Team Members Who Experience Disrespect

If a team member comes to you with a story about a colleague who said something offensive, Robin suggests several steps to take.

First, just listen to the whole story of what happened, acknowledge their experience, and ask how they want you to be involved. Some employees would prefer to handle it themselves, but just want you to know in case future incidents occur, while others prefer management to get involved.

If they desire your involvement, hold a private meeting with the person accused of the disrespectful behavior. Ask them what happened and then share how the comment or action was taken by the other person. If the employee was unaware of the impact of their actions and apologizes, brainstorm ways they can be more sensitive towards others going forward. Encourage them to take ownership of their mis-step and apologize directly to the individual.

If an employee resists acknowledging their mistake, and says something like “This is just how I am, I can’t change”, take the opportunity to discuss the organization’s position on respecting coworkers and speak to an HR colleague about any other appropriate next steps.

Check In With Your Teammate

If you notice an offensive behavior, don’t hesitate to check in with the targeted colleague even if they aren’t responding to it. They will appreciate your concern. If they aren’t offended, it gives you an opportunity to learn about them and what they are/are not sensitive to.

As managers, we play a crucial role in forming a safe environment for our employees. Building awareness is the first step. We need to train all of our employees to consider how their words and actions will affect their coworkers. By creating organizational guidelines for respect, giving space for honest feedback, and becoming involved with problematic behavior, we transform our workplaces into spaces for our employees to feel seen and respected.


Robin’s Best Practices for Giving and Receiving Feedback guide when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at Purchase individual episode guides at to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.

This article was based on episode 163 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


Recent Posts

See All



When you subscribe to my email list, you'll be notified when new blog posts are released.

bottom of page