Workplace Incivility with Hayden Fricke

Host, Nathan Luker, talks to organisational psychologist and Managing Director of Steople, Hayden Fricke, about incivility in the workplace and how it affects psychological safety.

In this podcast (29 mins), Nathan and Hayden discuss:

  • What is incivility, how prevalent is it and how does it impact Australian workplaces
  • The role of data and technology plays in helping leaders to detect, prevent and respond to workplace incivility
  • Evidence-based solutions for leaders to tackle incivil behaviour in the workplace

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Show Notes

This factsheet outlines what is workplace civility vs incivility and suggests 5 practical ways you can encourage more considerate and respectful behaviour in your workplace.

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Podcast Transcript

Nathan Luker: [00:00:02] Welcome to The RelyOn Podcast, a show that delivers practical insights for leaders to build better organisations where people can live, work and study. I’m Nathan Luker, co-founder at Rely, where we help some of the best-known brands of prevent, detect and respond to culture and conduct issues via our intelligent platform.

Nathan Luker: [00:00:24] In today’s conversation, I’m joined by Hayden Fricke, who is the Managing Director of Steople, and we’re exploring workplace culture and incivility. Before we get started, we’d like to confirm today’s topic on incivility is from the perspective of a leader in business abusing a position of power. We recognise there is a time and place for incivility, especially when it comes to disrupting entrenched truth to power situations like #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter. Also, behaviour from people who are neurodiverse may be interpreted as incivil when it isn’t.

Nathan Luker: [00:01:01] Hayden, you’re the managing director of a consulting firm, you studied organisational psychology and you began your career in HR. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about your background? What’s fuelled your interest in workplace culture and incivility?

Hayden Fricke: [00:01:14] Thanks, Nathan. I’m going to start my response to that with a little bit of a story, a personal story, first of all, and then I’ll answer your question about civility. So, I started my professional life as a professional tennis player. After 12 months of playing tennis in on a full tennis scholarship in the US, I returned to Australia and played the professional tennis circuit for a few years. And whilst I was a very good tennis player as a junior, and I was used to winning a lot, it was more challenging when I got to the professional level and it was all going well, except for one small thing. I kept losing too much! And so, one of the things I learnt about myself through that period was that I was a very good tennis player, but when it really counted, I couldn’t play to my full potential. I was a great practice partner, but when I cared too much, I would get anxious. I would choke. I would get nervous. And I couldn’t play in the flow. I’d studied psychology at university, in the US and I got interested in it. So, I wanted to become a sports psychologist and so I went to university and seven years later became a sports psychologist. Whilst that was happening in my life, I also had a number of family challenges that were happening for me. Whilst I was in the US, my parents divorced and of course I wanted to come home and fix that problem, but I couldn’t. Whilst that was happening, I had a brother who was also a professional tennis player at the young age of 17 and he had a mental breakdown whilst playing on the tennis circuit and unfortunately has never recovered and later diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Hayden Fricke: [00:02:49] And another family challenge was that I have an older brother who has a mild intellectual disability and he’s he was struggling at the time, so lots of family disruption. And so, I guess my passion for psychology comes from both my background in sport and my family circumstances that made me want to learn about psychology. So, I’ve been a sports psychologist and counselling psychologist and then an organisational psychologist since way back since 1996. I started business called Steople in 2009, which I’m very privileged and lucky to have a firm of people right across Australia and the US and New Zealand for organisational psychologists and organisational development specialists. If I go to your question on culture and civility specifically, one of the things I did in the early stages of my career, I worked as a head of HR at State Trustees from 2001 to 2006. And I noticed when I first joined that organisation that the culture was not ideal, and I remember working very closely with the CEO to transform the organisation over a three- or four-year period. It was challenging and yet really rewarding work around culture. State trustees actually interesting enough years later I one of our clients at Steople and I’m really proud of the fact that many of the aspects of the culture we created back in 2001 to 4 are still there today.

Hayden Fricke: [00:04:26] And so I guess from a culture perspective, I thoroughly believe that culture and building a culture that’s a great workplace culture is key to long term success. So that was culture.

Hayden Fricke: [00:04:41] And then if I move to civility and incivility, my first introduction to the concept of civility came in about 2015 where we were working with a large Victorian hospital and we became aware of a program called Crew Creating Respect and Engagement in the Workforce. Now that was a program that was developed by a guy, Professor Michael Leiter, in Canada, based upon 20 years of research into burnout. And his research show that the key protective factor around burnout is a culture of respect and civility. He was a world leader into research into burnout, and he found that the culture of respect and civility within a local team was the great sort of crucial factor in protecting workers from burnout.

[00:05:33] Now, as luck would have it, that Michael Leiter actually came out to Melbourne as a visiting professor at Deakin University a couple of years later. And when Michael came out to Melbourne, we already had a strong relationship with Deakin University. We formed a bond together and developed a, an updated pragmatic version of score with Michael. It’s called Score – Strengthening a Culture of Respect and Engagement. We’ve been running that program right across Australia now for about five years. And so now I guess the passion from psychology to culture to civility and respect has become something that I’m really passionate about.

Nathan Luker: [00:06:16] Thanks, that’s terrific and shows how important lived experience is, both in the way where we all spend our time and focus areas, but also makes it more impactful for the work that you do with clients and helping both leaders create the environments to thrive, but also employees understanding the harmony between work and life and how that impacts culture as a whole. So, we very much appreciate you sharing that.

Nathan Luker: [00:06:42] It’s interesting you talked about culture stickiness with your very first client and how that has stayed with you. Culture is a large topic. I’m particularly passionate about civility and incivility based on similarities that you mentioned around the research of burnout, but also how every single day we have decisions with how we will handle actions and how we’ll act with others that all contribute to the way that culture is perceived at a high level. And a lot of that comes down to civility and incivility. And clearly that first client has very much understood that and manages that on a daily basis. Hopefully later today, we can talk a little bit about the solutions to the problem that are drawing on some of the good work that they’ve done and that you help clients understand. Let’s go back to the basics if that’s okay.

Nathan Luker: [00:07:27] So let’s define incivility, if that’s okay with you, talk about what you believe, how common it is in Australia and any further research that you can draw on. I read an interesting stat recently the managers of Fortune 100 companies spend on average seven weeks a year dealing with the aftermath of incivility and cost just absolutely blow out once lawyers and consultants are brought in to deal with it. And that’s not even factoring in the impact on culture, customers and a whole range of other metrics. So, if you could share with us what incivility is, how common it is, and where it rears its head.

Hayden Fricke: [00:08:03] Yeah, I hadn’t heard that stat that you just talking about, Nathan, but I’ve certainly got other stats to share with you. Let’s talk about what it is. First of all, incivility is really about what we call low intensity and low intentional behaviours that are seen as rude, but they’re not quite at the level of bullying or harassment or that serious level where it becomes, say, an official complaint. So, for example, incivility could be little things like you’re in a meeting and someone says something that you disagree with. And so, there’s the eye rolling in a meeting. Or it could be aggressive body language, it could be excluding people, it could be blunt email. So, there’s a range of little things. So, they’re little, tiny things that, if left unchecked, they lead to a larger cultural or behavioural problem. And so, we believe that it’s really important to pick up those early signs of the low intensity, low intentional behaviours that are uncivil, behaviours that if you pick up on those, you reduce burnout, but you also proactively create a thriving, flourishing work environment. So that’s what it is. And that’s what you need to do to focus on it.

Hayden Fricke: [00:09:17] In terms of how common is it? Unfortunately, it is far too common. On average, if you look at all the research, it seems to be about a third of many workforces in Australia and globally that are impacted by incivil behaviour, depending on how workforces describe it and define it. But I’ll give you one example. The Medical Journal of Australia in 2020, they looked at behaviours across seven hospitals across Australia with 5000 people and they found that 39% of people had reported frequently that is weekly or more experiencing incivility or bullying from co-workers.

Hayden Fricke: [00:10:00] Furthermore, they found that 15% had experienced extreme unprofessional behaviours which includes assaults. For example, another study that I looked at in the ACT at ACT Health showed that one third of workers report being sworn at or yelled at work and a quarter have been humiliated in front of others. So, there’s a lot of data out there. There’s just a couple of things that I’ve looked at. It seems to be around a third quarter to a third of people are experiencing regular in civil behaviours. I can also finally share with you some stuff anecdotally because we’ve worked in this space a lot. So, my anecdotal experience is that unfortunately it is a problem that’s increasing and we find that it’s particularly increasing in organisations where there’s a large power differential between people. And so, for example in hospitals where you’ve got say power differentials between surgeons or doctors and nurses or legal firms, where there’s a very senior partner and a more junior staff member. And in fact, even more recently in another sector, a report by P.W see into the level of sort of in civil behaviour within the Victorian Local Government which is increasing and particularly between counsellors. And executive staff. For us, it all begins with those poor workplace civility, basic human respect. And if that goes unchecked, then it can escalate into some really significant cultural problems.

Nathan Luker: [00:11:32] It’s interesting when talking about the threshold of what incivility is and isn’t so difficult to measure. You could even argue that it’s worse than overt bullying at times because it can go so unchecked. It’s incredibly hard to hire for it’s difficult to write a policy for and to maintain that policy and enforce it at an organisation over the long term, as well as dealing with definition differences, etc. I really like your example about health care and that is an easy one and I know that there are a number of initiatives out there. The catchiest name I’ve heard is Charm School for a hospital in the USA around how to improve doctor patient in manner. And I think that’s an important one to note that incivility is not just a staff member of staff member, it can filter through a range of stakeholders within the ecosystem. And you mentioned counsellors and executive staff, also very common in university and higher education sectors where the academic staff and executive staff points of difference and their power difference is very interesting to note.

Nathan Luker: [00:12:39] What do you believe in relation to malice? In our experience dealing with thousands of whistleblowing matters, we tend to be involved when something goes horribly wrong or when there is a serious allegation made. So unfortunately, at the end of the incivility spectrum, you’re dealing in surveys and information where we are getting a better handle over those day-to-day rates. Does some of this comes down to thoughtlessness? So, some of it comes down to the busyness of life and not being in check with one’s behaviours and how you present a work. Surely not all behaviour that’s defined as incivility comes down to malice and poor intent.

Hayden Fricke: [00:13:21] Very good question. Look, I guess that goes back to my definition earlier that it’s low intensity and low intentional. There are very few people, in my view, that actually intend to hurt others. Most people are just unaware, like not many people would say, Yep, I’m that kind of person. So, the starting point for any program to improve this is that enhancing self-awareness. You know, if you go right back thousands of years, I think it’s 400 B.C. to Socrates, he said, know thyself. And I think that’s a key part of this is self-awareness. And so, I don’t think many people intend to hurt others, although I think there is a small percentage that do maybe one or 2% of people that do. There are those that have that approach, but 99% of people don’t intend to be rude or in civil. It’s their response to things. So yeah, the starting point for any program to try to drive some changes is to increase awareness of self and self-behaviours and what constitutes any rudeness such as do you eyeroll when you’re in a meeting, do you unintentionally exclude others? What’s your email etiquette? So, a lot of the issues are all around things that most people are simply not aware of, that that is not sort of civil or helpful behaviour.

Nathan Luker: [00:14:44] Interesting point. I think you raise emails a few times and I can connect to that. I think many leaders can and potentially will justify the behaviour or not. Take a hard look at ourselves of the example that we’re setting based on being mission orientated, for example. So, if you’re a busy executive, you’ve, you’ve built a business from the ground up with zero clients, you’ve been a founder and no doubt have had times that you’re not proud of where you’ve been multitasking for the greater good because you know what needs to be done. There’s only a certain amount of time left and no doubt you have made mistakes and I have many times in the pursuit of being mission orientated, but at the end of the day that excuse isn’t good enough because it’s the perception of the person on the receiving end. If you’re in an email, in a meeting, sending emails whilst listening to a presentation, you’re setting a standard and that standard will have a ripple effect for the organisation. So, I think thoughtlessness is incredibly important to realise here and it makes the solution complicated because and that’s where I’d love to, to expand on now.

[00:15:49] What do you see that works? What role does technology play in preventing and detecting and responding to incivility? What can leaders do? There’s obviously training, but there needs to be more than that. There needs to be active engagement and strategies. And maybe drawing on your earlier example of the culture stickiness with your very first client, what’s working out there in industry?

Hayden Fricke: [00:16:13] I’m going to talk about maybe data, the data part of that. First of all, I think I think data is crucial because what gets measured gets done if we don’t measure the changes, we’re just having nice conversations. And so, it’s really important to be able to collect evidence of behaviours and their impact. Now that’s hard though because it’s not hard and fast data, but we need to be able to gather information that is as objective as we possibly can make it. So, for example, the work that we’re doing with Professor Michael Leiter, as psychologists, we collect evidence and data. Now, I’m lucky that Michael Leiter likes to write papers up and produce evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of the work we run the programs. And Michael, does the production of the reports demonstrate that? But with the school program, for example, we measure at least three-time intervals. So before conducting a program to improve workplace civility, civility and respect, we will do a pre-program survey using Michael’s well research assessment tools to actually measure what is the level of incivility at the starting point. Then we will provide a program to change the levels of incivility and then measure again twice measure at the end of the program and then 3 to 6 months later again to see if those behaviours have been maintained. So, whether you do that or some other measurement, you need to measure pre and post to see if there’s a change.

Hayden Fricke: [00:17:45] I think also the Rely software that Nathan that you guys are rolling out can add to the types of data that we collect in critical ways because the sort of data I understand that you collect through the release software is more real time data rather than doing it just pre and post and intervention. It’s collecting information as you go and that information continually informs the responses to the interventions that are either working or not. So, I actually can see a lovely role, even though we haven’t talked about this yet in some of our stuff, which is very focused on assessments and measurements, pre and post programs. I think there’s an ongoing sort of pulse check role that you will sort of platform can provide and then that informs and targets the interventions. Instead of it being a one size fits all fits all program, you can develop bespoke and tailored solutions that exactly meet your client needs and it could meet those needs also at different level. So, you talk about culture, there’s not one culture, there’s often cultures within cultures. And so, you might have a work group that has an in civil culture, but another work group within the same organisation might be fine. So, we need to be able to target and pinpoint our interventions where they’re exactly needed.

Nathan Luker: [00:18:59] But I think you’re right, it affords us together. People process and purpose in measuring is one thing. Daily action is another, and you require both. You need both to forge and create trust action and earn people’s attention and their, I guess, passion and awareness to grow as well. I fully agree – you need both – be it Rely, be it Steople, whatever mechanism is in place, those things need to co-exist on a daily basis and or nothing happens.

Nathan Luker: [00:19:29] We talked earlier about role modelling, thoughtlessness, being using excuses that your goal focused and mission obsessed. It starts there. So, what a leader is doing firstly to set the standard. And what interventions are working on a daily basis, not including measurement, which we know is incredibly important.

Hayden Fricke: [00:19:49] So yeah, once you’ve done the sort of measurement, you’ve got the pre and post in the evidence. I think the first thing to acknowledge though, if you want to create a culture where there’s a lot of civility and respect, there’s no magic wand, there’s no pill you can take. Sometimes these days we’re just, where’s the program? We can fix it. It actually takes commitment from a variety of stakeholders over a sustained period of time. It’s not something you can fix quickly. It’s not cheap. It requires investment. But we know that if organisations are serious about creating more civil workplaces, then the evidence is clear that you can actually create highly civil workplaces. And I’ll talk to you about how in a moment. But actually, I might just take a sidestep as well. One of the things that we’ve talked about is culture. And one of the things that I’ve become very aware of is within the political world, some of the discourse is highly uncivil or in civil. The behaviours that the Australian Federal Parliament level do not set a good standard for others to follow. There’s no you can’t write a rule book to say here’s what’s in civil and here’s not. You must follow this. It’s actually cultural. And so, the leaders of our country need to actually start to role model appropriate behaviours.

Hayden Fricke: [00:21:09] And I’m actually very excited to be in conversation with some people in Federal Parliament about this exact thing. We need to start changing the discourse around Australia about civil and uncivil behaviours in and outside of workplaces. It takes a lot of hard work and you can’t write a manual for it, but if people are serious about it, we can effect change. And so how do we affect change? We know that. We know that 70% of culture is about daily habits and behaviours of leaders, what they do, not what they say. So, the starting point for any leader, whether it be the Prime Minister of Australia or the CEO or executive team for an organisation, is to role model civil behaviours themselves as often as you possibly can. That is step one. Now, no one’s perfect, so when you do stuff up, admit your mistakes, but work very hard to make this something that’s important. As part of that, I think leaders need to be very, very open to feedback. I do a lot of training for leaders how to give feedback, but more important than giving feedback is actually receiving feedback. Leaders need to be able to receive feedback because often they’re the ones that are in a power differential.

Hayden Fricke: [00:22:15] They’re the ones that actually people may not feel safe to give feedback to. So as a leader, you need to go out of your way to be more open to feedback than anyone else, and feedback that if someone thinks you’re behaving poorly, that they can give you that feedback. I think that’s part of role modelling is being open to feedback. The second thing that leaders can do is to actually, once they do take it seriously on themselves, is to actually be able to call out insular behaviours. The small little things they say, don’t let those go, have the conversations they need to have with appropriate skill and compassion in having those conversations with others so constructively challenge where you see in civil behaviours. And the final thing I want to mention is about psychological safety and the connection between psychological safety and civility. A leader needs to create a safe environment where people can speak up without fear of being ridiculed or fear of recriminations. And there are three specific things that leaders can do in order to do that. Firstly, they can set the scene by and expectations by standing up there and talking about mistakes, talking about fires, talking about intelligent fires and all those things.

Hayden Fricke: [00:23:32] So set the expectations of what sort of behaviour you want to see as well. So, setting all the expectations upfront is step one. The second thing that leaders can do is to engage others through asking really good questions, and there’s questions around broadening the conversation to involve others. There are questions that go deeper as well. We’re necessary. They’re the kind of why questions why you think that to bring others out and to draw others in, as well as asking good questions. Leaders need to show their own vulnerabilities and not try to be perfect. They need to share their own mistakes, their own vulnerabilities, their own fears and worries, and create a culture of openness and honesty and transparency. If they do that, people are going to feel safer with leaders. And thirdly, they need to respond productively. When people do make mistakes or when people do share their vulnerabilities, they need to actually respond appropriately to encourage more of that kind of behaviour. If leaders can do those kinds of things, they can create a safe environment for people to speak up. And if people speak up a lot more, then we’re actually not just role playing. Everyone’s playing a role in creating a civil and respectful work environment.

Nathan Luker: [00:24:44] Yeah, and that’s fantastic. We speak a lot about providing the signals that leaders are listening at an organisation, and that needs to happen before people are speaking up. It’s critically important, and it lends itself to your psychological safety model that you just mentioned in those three points. Thinking back, I’m reading a great book by Tony Fadell at the moment called Build, and in that it defines different types and to use his words, arseholes at a workplace, and it goes through varying, varying types. And the last one that he worked with personally was the mission, mission focus, customer obsessed, however you want to place it that we use to earlier. But that type of society used Steve Jobs as an example, and I thought it was really interesting in preparation for this podcast and this conversation and what we spoke about earlier about not excusing incivility and certain bad behaviour just because you might be or be working with that mythical brilliant person in the industry or that person who is so focused. And I think it’s important to take into account the cluster of behaviour and reminding that person on the rubrics you just use is critically important. You can be both, you can be brilliant, you can be focused on pushing your team as a coach to exceed what they think is possible on their personal level, on the realm of the business, and to deliver for customers and all of that all of that jazz that we all imagine and want to be. But you can also listen. You can also let people know where you’ve failed and let them know that I’m listening. Things are stressed. I’m focused, but I am I am going to change if something doesn’t seem quite right and that safety is critical, you can’t have one more.

Hayden Fricke: [00:26:23] I totally agree. I think the key word there is and that leaders need to be able to drive performance, productivity, accountability, whatever you want to call it, and drive the business success. Absolutely. And they need to drive wellbeing, civility, respect, safety. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.

Nathan Luker: [00:26:44] You must encounter that topic and that type of consulting all the time. You’re a high-performance CEO coach as well. This must be a major topic. Not so much. Maybe incivility, but how do I accommodate the needs of my people? Be a wonderful leader that creates a safe environment, but not lose that fight. That internal difference that got me here. You know, it’s a hard thing to do to be a leader, to be a founder, to be a CEO of a large business, a government organisation, or just the head of a department. That’s a difficult thing. This must be a very common topic of that. You must help people.

Hayden Fricke: [00:27:18] Balance out comes up all the time. It’s something it’s probably a major theme for the last ten years and the work that I do and I’ve been trying to send that message and many people are getting it, but not everyone is getting it. And I think the key is to take a long-term view. Yes, you can be successful in driving performance in the short term without taking care of your people. But if you want a long-term view to be successful over a ten plus year period, you have to do both. So, it depends on your time horizon. And I would encourage leaders to take a longer-term time horizon that we’re talking about. Sustained success, not short-term success.

Nathan Luker: [00:27:54] Exactly right. And if you need further convincing, uncivil treatment of people leads to a range of financial and reputational risks and impacts. And it doesn’t take too far to find people, find out and learn more about that. It probably is impacting us today and your own organization in ways that you’re not even aware of as we speak. So, it’s an important thing to get into, Hayden, thank you so much. We have one last question. We have a rapid-fire question. I would love you to finish the sentence by asking all guests this question. From your opinion, a great workplace culture relies on…

Hayden Fricke: [00:28:30] ,,,leaders who are able to consistently drive both performance and a civil, respectful and psychologically safe environment.

Nathan Luker: [00:28:42] Fantastic. Thanks, Hayden, so much for joining us. Really appreciate your time and your insights from people and your career to date. Thanks again. Until next time.

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