A positive and productive departmental climate can often seem like love. We might admire it from afar and wish we had that luck, although we can learn to cope by developing a hobby, lowering our expectations, or cultivating other relationships. We might blame our current unhappiness on our own mates in life or work and daydream about leaving, yet we rarely consider other strategies that are legitimately within our capacity and job description. Whatever can be said about romantic relationships and the possibility of increasing our success at them might best be left to other forms of literature. An atmosphere that is professional, affirming, and supportive, however, is something I am ready to argue that we should and can work at developing. Recent research from across the disciplines provides some insight into why we should bother and how we can go about improving the climate in our academic workplaces.

We can think of a positive and productive university climate as one characterized by civility, or alternatively, by low levels of incivility. Civility is a culture of polite and respectful behavior that enables individuals to work together and overcome divergent views and opinions. It goes beyond nice manners and encompasses intention as well as behavior. Beyond avoiding the time-sink of dealing with conflict itself, controlled experiments demonstrate additional benefits of civility. For instance, in several studies, subjects who observed a rude interaction between research collaborators scored lower on subsequent tasks that tested cognitive function and creativity (Porath and Erez 2009). In this case, the decreased performance was attributed to the effects of physical arousal associated with incivility, which is subconsciously perceived as a threat. However other studies have suggested that incivility can impair performance in additional ways, such as through a negative effect on team dynamics. For instance, in simulations designed to test the effect of mild non-targeted rudeness in a medical setting, researchers found that exposure to only two statements about the general level of medical training and practice in the participants’ country had a strong negative effect on participants’ help-seeking and sharing of information with other team members. (Riskin et al 2015)

Academic leaders, faculty members, and staff at any level can play a role in building stronger, more resilient workplaces and communities by making an effort to identify attributes in others that you honestly respect and admire, and which can form the basis of positive relationships. Keep the wisdom of Poor Richard’s Almanack in mind, and “search others for their virtues.” If we see our workplace as a small world where we are collaborators, friends, and neighbors, we are less likely to neglect or discard relationships with our colleagues. There is extensive support for the positive effect of friendships and high-quality interpersonal relationships on workplace climate, including employee turnover, innovation, and workplace citizenship.

The second part of Ben Franklin’s axiom is to search yourself for your vices. Going against the problem-oriented approach recommended by many guides to academic administration, Christine Porath (2016) prompts us to think critically about our own habits and contributions to workplace climate by conducting an inventory of uncivil workplace behaviors (see http://www.christineporath.com/assess-yourself/). Some of these behaviors (making demeaning or derogatory remarks, insulting others, belittling others non-verbally, writing rude emails) are easily identified as uncivil. Other behaviors are less obvious, yet can still contribute to a poor work environment: delaying access to information or resources, using jargon even when it excludes others, ignoring invitations, and interrupting others. These are common currency in many academic workplaces, and worth considering for their negative contribution to departmental climate. Porath encourages us to ask trusted co-workers for 360-degree feedback—feedback from colleagues above, alongside, and below us in our institution’s organizational chart—and compare this with our own self-evaluation of these behaviors.

Incivility perpetuates a cycle of negativity that has effects outside the rude interactions themselves. Both positive and negative emotional states are contagious (Foulk et al 2016). Individuals who have been exposed to rudeness (negative priming) interpret subsequent incidents and experiences more negatively. For those whose goals include increasing the ethnic diversity of their faculty complement, negative priming highlights the importance of building ample strong and positive relationships that can reduce negative interpretations of social interactions.

One difficulty in improving workplace civility is the ambiguity of social interactions. Civility (like beauty) is in the eye of the beholder, and for this reason academic leaders should not only model civility but also make the quality of workplace interactions part of an explicit and ongoing public conversation. Twale and De Luca (2008) note that the ambiguity, specificity, and situatedness of norms of civility has the effect of enabling us to become accustomed (or acculturated) to incivilities that are initially shocking to newcomers to a workplace. This suggests that some of the difficulties experienced by new hires are not so much a matter of them learning to “fit in” as it is old-timers engaging in routine behaviors (not responding promptly or at all to email, failing to greet co-workers in hallways and common areas, not attending department and faculty meetings and events) that detract from a supportive and energizing workplace. Research on experiences of incivility in workplaces suggests that failure to acknowledge and address these behaviors contributes to their persistence and generates cynicism through the perception that there is a mismatch between institutional discourse and behavior. Academic leaders at any level can promote a better work climate by modeling and setting out explicit expectations for behavior, addressing shortcomings in a timely and effective manner, and focusing on identifying and changing behaviors rather than labeling and punishing individuals.

Civility is a worthy goal, regardless of whether we see the purpose of higher education as a platform for scientific advancement, personal and professional growth, or social justice. Social media has allowed us to become accustomed to expressing disagreement or criticism at arm’s length and separate from any need to maintain a relationship or reach an understanding of shared values and goals. In the academy, this habit is reinforced by the perception that academic freedom authorizes these expressions. The academic workplace, however, remains a small community whose tenured residents need to continue to find solutions that work as well as possible for as many as possible. We can do this through awareness of the costs of incivility and by taking actions to improve the quality of our relationships.

Patricia L. Kelly Spurles is an associate professor and head of Anthropology for Mount Allison University (New Brunswick, Canada).


Foulk T, A Woolum, and Amir Erez (2016). “Catching rudeness is like catching a cold: The contagion effects of low-intensity negative behaviors” Journal of Applied Psychology 101:50-67.

Porath, Christine L. and Amir Erez (2009). “Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 109: 29–44.

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

Riskin, Arieh, Amir Erez, Trevor A. Foulk, Amir Kugelman, Ayala Gover, Irit Shoris, Kinneret S. Riskin, Peter A. Bamberger (2015), “The Impact of Rudeness on Medical Team Performance: A Randomized Trial” Pediatrics 136:487-495.

Twale, Darla J. and Barbara M. De Luca (2008). Faculty Incivility: The Rise of the Academic Bully Culture and What to Do About It, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.