Incivility and Intention

A defining quality of incivility in contrast to abuse or bullying is “ambiguous intent.” To label a behavior as rude, you do not need to establish that the instigator intended to be rude, or even more precisely, that the instigator intended to be rude to you. The defining quality is that the recipient of this behavior experienced as rude or disrespectful. For example, you come upon dirty dishes that a coworker has left in the common area sink. You are justified in labelling this behavior as uncivil because it inconveniences others. The instigator may not have intended to show disrespect towards colleagues. The instigator may never have given them a moment’s thought. That thoughtlessness in itself shows disrespect and moves the action into the realm of incivility. Other workplace behaviors that follow this pattern are leaving specialty paper in the shared office printer, talking loudly in the hallway, or making off color jokes. Any of these behaviors have the power to offend regardless of intention.

The word, ambiguous, broadens the scope of incivility. If incivility was defined actions that offend despite the instigator having no intention to offend, the realm of incivility would be much smaller. It would only include the sorts of behaviors just discussed. The ambiguity definition includes behaviors that were intended to offend. The word, ambiguity, suggests that the observer or recipient of the behavior may be somewhat uncertain about the instigator’s intent, but another person’s true intent is often clouded, even to the instigator.

An implication for practice is that one element of addressing incivility is inducing thoughtfulness. The objective is to reduce the legitimacy of excuses: “I didn’t realize . . .,” or “I didn’t think about . . .” This approach puts responsibility on both potential instigators of incivility (a group that includes just about everyone) and potential recipients (exactly the same group of everyone).

From the potential instigator perspective, the objective is to broaden one’s capacity to anticipate the unintended consequences of their actions.

From the potential recipient perspective, the objective is to inform colleagues of the sorts of things that they find annoying and therefore uncivil. For example, talking in the hallway near my office distracts me from my work, musical ringtones drive me crazy, or I don’t want to hear sexually oriented humor at work.

The central point is that each person has a unique perspective. In a workplace with people of diverse backgrounds and values, each person has a responsibility to make an effort to appreciate those perspectives. Good intentions mean looking beyond your own perspective.


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter

    You have pointed the specific area where incivility appear to be justified as a lack of knowledge about other’s feelings at work. That is why laws applied even if the infractor didn’t knew the legal code. Unfortunately people’s common sense cannot be controlled by laws, and it becomes a matter of education and communication. Thereby, create proper dialogue spaces within the workplace and as a part of work process is pertinent and wise, in order to create better work conditions and productivity. But, before tryng to create such spaces, We should learn to dialogue.


  2. You make good points Heriberto.
    I agree that the challenge is for people to develop the sensitivity necessary to anticipate their impact on others. Unintended consequences need to be minimized. It would make worklife a better world.


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