Conflict Resolution

High Stakes Civility

­­­When stakes are high and your performance matters most, you and your team will likely get stressed. But how will you treat each other? Will you all take a deep breath, make sure communication is respectful and straightforward, and motivate each other by using language that acknowledges that you’re all in it together? Or, will you become short with each other, feeling that you have less time to be polite, and causing you to become more terse with your instructions? Will your colleagues notice that the tone of your voice has changed? Will you find yourself giving more negative feedback than you normally would? Your answers matter.

Here’s why: poor interaction leads to poor performance. In a study conducted by Arieh Riskin and his colleagues, medical teams participated in a training simulation in which they had to stabilize an infant whose situation was quickly worsening. An “expert” (really a research confederate) watched them using an internet connection. Half the teams had the “neutral” expert, who talked about the importance of training using simulations, but didn’t make any comments on performance. The other half had the “uncivil” expert, who made negative comments about their performance and their institution.

These simulations were filmed and later judged by outside evaluators. On all diagnostic and procedural performance measures, evaluators rated teams working under the rude expert as performing more poorly than the ones with the neutral expert (2015). Indeed, in a 2008 study of 4,500 doctors and nurses, 71 percent said that condescending, insulting, or rude behaviour leads to medical error, and 27 percent connected it to patient death (Rosenstein & O’Daniel). Other studies determined that teams who experience negative behaviour experiment less, seek less help and/or feedback from each other, and share less information with each other. They also speak up about potential problems less frequently (Porath, 2016; Thomas & Larkin, 2018). So, it’s no wonder that becoming less polite during stressful moments worsens team performance.

There’s a simple solution to this problem, which is to teach your people to be nice. In other words, tell them to be clear, open, and respectful. When possible, have them postpone longer, more intense chats for when storms have blown over. Make sure you model this behaviour with yourself and hold your people accountable to the standards you’ve set for yourself.

This is essential advice and, if you’re not already doing this, you should be. But I’m writing this blog because those of us who have tried it know that sometimes even this is not enough. For example, when people who have an occasional tendency to be rude get stressed, their rudeness gets worse, not better. Such workers should be taught to be more respectful, but you need to put something in place so it’s not catastrophic when they don’t comply.

The solution is to intentionally structure your workplace so that people can build strong relationships with each other. When people do this, it increases the frequency of constructive team behaviours, thus improving team performance (Zak & Barraza, 2013; Zak, 2017).

It’s actually a fair bit of work to structure your workplace in this way, but it’s also quite satisfying. In fact, better relationships not only help with team performance, but significantly improve morale and retention as well. However, this doesn’t happen automatically, and there are probably things you’re doing every day that contribute to the kinds of relationships employees have with each other. That’s why in our book, The Culture Question, my co-authors and I devote a chapter to explaining what we’ve learned from our survey and experiences as consultants about how leaders can create structures in which employees relationally connect in healthy ways. While it’s impossible to elaborate on them all here, here are seven quick thoughts from the book:

  1. Hire employees who will clearly be supportive team members
  2. Design your office space so people can both collaborate and work in privacy
  3. Establish mobile phone etiquette not only for meetings, but hallways and lunchrooms as well
  4. Develop a culture where people are more likely to deliver a message in person (or at least via phone) rather than email
  5. Allow for chit-chat, but, so that everyone can relax, help people understand what is too much and how to draw it to a close
  6. Volunteer for community events together
  7. Put effort into team-building days and staff parties

With some work, you can build teams that are so well-connected that they remain productive, even in the most stressful of times. As one of our survey participants put it, “Working towards more meaningful connections with each other takes time, but when people relate to each other on a deeper level, things fall into place.”


Porath, Christine Lynne. Mastering Civility: A Manifesto for the Workplace (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 22-23.

Riskin, A., Erez, A., Foulk, T. A., Kugelman, A, Gover, A., Shoris, I.,…Bamberger, P. A. “The Impact of Rudeness on Medical Team Performance: A Randomized Trial.” Pediatrics 136, no. 3 (September 2015): 487-495. doi: 10.1542/peds.2015-1385d

Rosenstein, A. H., & O’Daniel, M. “A Survey of the Impact of Disruptive Behaviors and Communication Defects on Patient Safety.” The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety, 34, no. 8 (August 2008): 464-471. doi: 10.1016/s1553-7250(08)34058-6

Thomas, S., & Larkin, T. “Plasma Cortisol and Oxytocin Levels Predict Help-Seeking Intentions for Depressive Symptoms.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87 (January 2018): 159-165.

doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2017.10.018

Walton, G., Carr, P. B., & Howe, L. C. “Cues of Working Together Fuel Intrinsic Motivation and Can Contribute to the Solution of Collective Action Problems.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53 (March 2014): 169-184. doi: 10.1037/e578192014-274
For more free resources, visit our resources page.


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

Mike is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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