Combat Rude Behavior with Radical Civility

Everyone knew that Jim was a real jerk. With an arch of his brow or the curl of his lip, this senior VP could reduce anyone to tears. And he did, frequently. As a junior staff writer at the time, I was a frequent target of Jim’s scathing derision.

One day I decided to confront Jim. I marched into his office and asked him whether I had ever said or done anything to offend him. He shook his head, looking bemused. “Then why,” I continued, “are you always so rude to me?” After a terrifying moment of silence, Jim laughed and said that he was just waiting for me to push back. Apparently, I passed his test, for he treated me with a semblance of respect from then on.

I was lucky. Such a direct confrontation rarely works to change rude behavior, according to Christine Porath, author of Managing Yourself: An Antidote to Incivility in the April 2016 Harvard Business Review. But there are ways we can inoculate ourselves from the effects of rude behavior. And that’s a good thing, since such behavior takes a toll on our socio-emotional health, job performance and physical well-being.

The ability to thrive is the best way to ward off the negative effects of bad behavior. Two related, but distinct, paths can help get us there, Porath says. Thriving cognitively occurs when we focus on improving our performance, learning new things, and finding ways to propel ourselves forward. Thriving affectively means that we are healthy of body and mind, and feel energized both inside and outside of work.

I’ve extracted and paraphrased some of Porath’s tips here which, taken together, can help create a kind of personal armor that can help repel the damaging effects of rude behavior.

  • Avoid avoidance. If you rely on a discourteous colleague to get work done, you can’t simply pretend s/he doesn’t exist. Ignoring emails and clamming up during team meetings is often seen (and rightly so) as passive-aggressive behavior, which will not endear you to colleagues. In fact, says Porath, 85% of people who confronted or avoided their troublesome colleagues felt unsatisfied with the outcome.
  • Practice wellness as the antidote. Just as physicians advocate the promotion of wellness to combat illness, focusing on your ability to thrive is the best defense against bad behavior. Porath defines thriving as “the psychological state in which a sense of vitality and self-improvement fortifies people against the vicissitudes of life.” Singer Taylor Swift puts it another way: “(When) the haters gonna hate, hate, hate… shake it off.”
  • Extract the toxins. We tend to replay troubling conversations ad infinitum, much as a washing machine can get stuck on the spin cycle. After briefly allowing yourself to reflect on the negative experience, clear it out to make space in your brain for more upbeat thoughts. (As one therapist advised, “Don’t let jerks rent space in your brain. You control who lives there.”) Writing down the gist of a painful conversation, reflecting how you felt and what outcome you would have wished for, can help. Once you’ve captured it somewhere, release it from your mind. (The Ladder of Inference is a great tool for dissecting tough conversations – See Links.)
  • Expend psychic energy in positive ways. What do you want to learn more about? What skills can you strengthen? Actively seek out ways to light up your brain in productive, energizing ways. Set goals, applaud your own achievements and seek out challenges that enrich your learning and your life. When you’re immersed in learning a new job skill, another language, mastering a new cuisine or training for a triathlon, your brain is too busy making positive neural connections to dwell on negative thoughts. It simply doesn’t have the bandwidth.
  • Find yourself a cheerleader. Sometimes we can’t pull ourselves out of a funk without someone else to cheer us on, especially when our self-esteem is feeling fragile. Seek out people who have a way of lifting you up, whether it’s a peer, mentor or friend. Focus the conversation less on the troubling incident and more on positive affirmations that can propel you forward.
  • Keep your energy high. Many of the same factors that prevent illness, like good nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress management, can also help inoculate us against the deleterious effects of rude behavior, says Porath. We are less able to rise above negative interactions when we’re fatigued or irritable. Exercise can work wonders by reducing muscle tension and stress and releasing those all-important endorphins that have a wonderful way of lifting our moods. By feeding our brains with nutritious sustenance, we’re better able to think clearly than when we resort to loading our brains with caffeine, carbs and sugar.
  • Be mindful and be grateful. Being thoughtful about the situations we find ourselves in and being deliberate about how we choose to respond (or to not respond) can help us maintain equilibrium in the face of adversity. Pausing to breathe deeply and intentionally can restore our strength and give us a better sense of focus and control. Those who make it a habit of practicing gratitude report being able to shed negative thoughts more quickly.
  • Latch onto positive influences. Negative or “de-energizing” relationships have a 4-7 times greater impact on someone’s ability to thrive than positive relationships, says Porath. That is to say, it takes a small village of positive influencers to offset the damage that just one negative influencer can have. Those people who tell jokes at others’ expense, or who constantly correct others even when there’s nothing at stake? Avoid them when you can, and rise above them when you can’t.
  • Seek fulfillment outside of work. Whether it’s by doing community service, attending adult ed classes, meeting up with friends, perfecting that short story or watercolor landscape, or playing with your kids, take the time to embark on pursuits that have real meaning to you. A rewarding life outside of work may be the single best antidote to negative experiences in the workplace.

Whether we encounter incivility in face-to-face situations or afar, the way we choose to handle rude behavior has a profound effect on the impact we allow it to have on our well-being. A college professor once gave me advice I never forgot: No one can intimidate us without our permission.


Managing Yourself: An Antidote to Incivility” – Harvard Business Review article by Christin Porath, April 2016. Reprint #R1604J

Past Communiques:

Tackling Tough Issues Remotely When Your Boss is the Problem

Just Because You’re Silent, You May Not Really Be Listening

10 Top Tips for Leading Great Lessons Learned Reviews in a Virtual World

“Ladder of Inference,” usually associated with Chris Argyris  and Peter Senghe, can be a useful tool to help you surface unspoken assumptions that often lead to difficult conversations. Search the key term to find videos, articles and other resources.

Happiness, Exercise and Endorphins – blog post from How Stuff Works

Wondering how I can help?

Let’s schedule a 30-minute meeting so we can explore how to work together to address your most pressing challenges.

Find Articles

Recent Posts


Sign Up Today to Get Free Tips for Creating a Level Playing Field Across Your Virtual, Hybrid Team