Incivility, Gender, and the Workplace: Not So Expected Findings from Three Studies

Mikel Chertudi with Allison Gabriel, University of Arizona

Last month, I interviewed Dr. Allison Gabriel who is an Associate Professor of Management and Organizations and Robbins Fellow in the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona. She earned her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 2013 from the University of Akron. Her research focuses on emotions at work, employee recovery, interpersonal stressors and relationships at work, motivation, and employee well-being. Dr. Gabriel is currently working on research related to understanding women’s experiences transitioning back into the workforce post-partum, and daily experiences of sexism and sexual harassment in organizations.

Mikel: Allison, thank you for sitting down with me to discuss your research, especially as it relates to current challenges in interpersonal communication in the workplace. I thought we’d start with how you place your research within the larger discipline of Psychology and how this work fits into a business school. What kind of graduate projects do you guide at Eller, and what courses do you teach?

Allison: Broadly, my research lies at the intersection of organizational behavior and psychology. As an industrial-organizational psychologist, I am interested in how day-to-day interactions and events affect employees’ emotions, motivation, and well-being. My research with my PhD students reflects this, as we study a variety of workplace interactions—some of which are negative like incivility and harassment, and others that are more positive like positive feedback experiences or compassion—and how they affect the types of emotions employees feel, and the behaviors they choose to engage in day-to-day. This research finds its way into my teaching, as I teach undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral courses related to organizational behavior, motivation, well-being, and leadership.

Mikel: In your article, “Who Strikes Back? A Daily Investigation of When and Why Incivility Begets Incivility,” you examine how incivility is instigated and the mechanics of how it is transferred from person to person. Your findings in this article have broad-ranging implications for all types of organizations, especially those with well-established feedback mechanisms. I’m curious, however, about the implications for small, relatively flat work teams that may not have such feedback mechanisms, such as entrepreneurial teams or student teams in academic environments. Would you speak to the implications for these types of groups? Are there best practices they can adopt to minimize the costs of incivility?

Allison: One thing I like to establish when discussing my work on this topic is that we’re not talking about harassment. We’re talking about incivility, which we define as discourteous and rude behavior, such as making derogatory remarks, excluding or ignoring coworkers, using a condescending tone, or acting in an unprofessional way, that causes the recipient to think “Hey, what did that person intend?”

What makes incivility tricky in organizations is that it’s ambiguous in intent. When you experience it, it’s often unclear if the person meant it the way you interpret it. All that matters is if you perceive it as something uncivil, so whether you’re talking about a large organization or small student teams in a classroom, incivility is present. When it comes to what to do about it the biggest takeaway from our research is that people need to be comfortable talking about it when they experience it. It’s natural for people when they feel like they’re experiencing incivility to ruminate on it to try to make sense of it, but rarely do they go back to the person who commented and discuss it with them. We don’t have those conversations.

Mikel: Has the way we communicate changed significantly over the past few years, and if so, how?

Allison: To answer your question about whether workplace communication is changing, it’s worth noting that we rely so much on the virtual interface of email and text, particularly with students, that we have become more uncomfortable having difficult conversations in person. I think the biggest takeaway is trying to encourage people to create psychologically safe work spaces where they can have these conversations openly when incivility occurs. In my experience when I’ve given this advice, I will inevitably have somebody say, “You know, I went to somebody and I brought this up. They said they had no idea their behavior was construed as uncivil.”

Mikel: Do we need to reexamine how we communicate in the workplace?

Allison: In terms of best practices, any team can establish clear feedback expectations to set the stage for what the team expects. The more you make that explicit upfront, even if it is a student team that is only going to work together for 16 weeks, the more you will reduce the ambiguity that can foster incivility. Incivility thrives in contexts where there’s ambiguity and unclear performance expectations because it can engender competition that sparks uncivil exchanges.

Mikel: I’m curious about the implications your research has for newer employees, or employees who hail from cultures (or countries) with different social contexts than the ones in which they find themselves working. How might their reactions to incivility differ from employees who are already acclimated to the organization’s culture?

Allison: Your question touches on some of the research in organizational behavior where there can be a 90-day window in which new team members become socialized and acclimated to the dynamics of the organization or team. Unfortunately, we don’t have the data to answer your question. I think more work is needed to understand some of these cultural differences and how people react to and perceive incivility in those circumstances. Speaking more broadly, though, new employees benefit from having clear expectations upfront and having access to mentoring programs to help them acclimate to the company’s norms and culture.

Mikel: Let’s go back to the idea of competition you mentioned earlier because it directly relates to another article of yours that has received a lot of press. In your article titled, “Further Understanding Incivility in the Workplace: The Effects of Gender, Agency, and Communion,” Your research provides a rigorous exploration of whether women experience more workplace incivility from other women than from men. There’s a lot to unpack here, so perhaps we can start with the framework. What sparked your interest in this phenomenon, and how did you set about studying it?

Allison: I’ve been studying incivility since my doctoral program when I started by studying incivility in customer service exchanges at call centers. As you can imagine, it’s very easy to be uncivil to somebody when they are on the other side of the phone, and you’re never going to have to interact with them face-to-face. Then, gradually, I started moving into how coworkers interact with each other, and this question of gender came up.

As I read studies about incivility, I noticed there were competing ideas. In one camp, people who were theorizing about this said, “Well, we know women experience more incivility on the whole than men, so let’s survey women and not ask anything about who the target is.” By doing this, it is often found that women will report a higher base rate of this experience than men do, and the assumption is that women are being targeted by men, who are the more dominant group in organizations. Since overt discrimination has become taboo, it might “leak” out in the form of uncivil behaviors. But, in another camp, some were starting to suggest that women may be more uncivil to other women, because they might view each other as a source of competition for scarce resources at work. These two ideas had not been tested against each other before, and that’s what we sought out to examine in our research.

Mikel: You test “whether having higher agency or lower communion strengthens the relationship between gender and female-instigated incivility”. Could you define the key terms of this research question while giving readers an example or two that describe such behavior?

Allison: A question had emerged in this line of research about whether women may be lashing out or treating other women uncivilly, possibly due to in-group competition. For me, as a researcher, seeing those two competing ideas was fascinating because nobody had tested them, and it seemed like the time was certainly right for thorough tests of that idea. My author team and I conducted three studies because if we were going to publish this research, we wanted to make sure we replicated our effects and ruled out alternative explanations. In the studies, we surveyed people across a wide range of industries because we also wanted to make sure that we weren’t just focusing on an industry like finance that’s more typically masculine or education that is more generally feminine.

Across these three studies, no matter which way we sliced or tried to analyze the data, women kept reporting more incivility from other women than they were from than men. Interestingly, men in our studies weren’t distinguishing incivility received from men or women any differently. So, it wasn’t that they were not experiencing incivility, but that it seemed as though it wasn’t coming from one source more than the other. Women just consistently kept reporting that other women were treating them poorly in the workplace even after controlling for things like the gender composition of their workgroups. It wasn’t just a function of the fact that women were around more women. We controlled for that to see if the effects would wash out and they didn’t, meaning that there were some interesting experiences going for women in the workplace. For me, as a woman, this was particularly troubling.

Mikel: One of the finding you report from these studies is that “women are more prone to female-instigated incivility when they report higher (lower) agentic (communal) traits and behaviors”. Could you unpack the agentic aspect of your study for the Bulletin readers?

Allison: The biggest takeaway is that women on the whole who say they are experiencing more incivility from other women than men. But, we can qualify that further. Specifically, it’s agentic women (i.e., those who exhibit dominant behaviors at work) who experience more incivility from other women at work. Many agentic behaviors that we associate with leader emergence — confidence to speak up, voicing opinions, delegating and assigning tasks — all the types of things that we build into leadership training programs can work against agentic women.

We know these behaviors go against typical gender norms at work — we expect men to prototypically display those agentic behaviors, whereas we expect women to be more communal, nurturing, warm, and caring. Because of this, there seems instances where agentic women are standing out and violating the norms of the group that could be leading to their experience of increased incivility from other women at work.

Mikel: Your study also examined how female- and male-instigated incivility affected women’s “job satisfaction, psychological vitality, and turnover in­tentions as outcomes”.

Allison: Since the agentic women reported the highest incivility from other women, it results in a variety of problematic outcomes, such as lower feelings of job satisfaction, which then correlate with reduced performance, the likelihood of turnover, and lower feelings of vitality and thriving. In terms of the well-being and performance costs to organizations, those feelings can be quite profound, and it’s all because these women are doing the very thing that we encourage people to do in leadership roles. That was the most startling finding to me.

Mikel: I was going to ask about that. In a place like a forward-thinking business school, where we realize we’ve been doing it wrong for a long time by coaching male and female students differently, and as you said leadership training programs that are trying to turn the tables and right the ship, it seems like we are setting women up for precisely the kinds of things that they are reporting in your research. Would it be wrong to say we’re doing them a disservice? What’s the solution?

Allison: Part of the solution has to be how we talk about leadership in the workplace. I’m guilty of this in my organizational behavior class, and it’s something that I tried to change once we did this research. We used to talk about leadership as this thing that uniformly plays out for men and women, so we tried to show students all the traits and behaviors that relate to leader emergence and effectiveness. However, we talked about them devoid of the fact that women and men are viewed differently at work due to unconscious biases, which come out when we evaluate performance.

I would love to see work done within organizations that intervene to signal that one woman standing out is not a threat to other women. There’s an opportunity to reframe who gets to advance – that there is not a limited pool of resources where one person’s gain is someone else’s loss. I don’t think organizations as a whole do a good enough job of explaining how success for one is a success for everyone. I would love to see more work done on training and how we can reframe competition in the workplace, so it’s less about one person rising and more about getting the collective to rise together. There are compelling examples of the benefits that happen when women in leadership positions help other women, that one successful woman can pull other women up into the ranks with them. We don’t talk about that enough yet, and we haven’t researched it enough yet, so I’m hopeful that we’ll move in that direction.

Mikel: I remember talking to you a couple of years ago when you had just published this research and were being asked for interviews. Your research in this area has, understandably, garnered much attention. How have people reacted to your findings? Do those reactions fall into any categories?

Allison: I have never published a paper that has resulted in me getting emails from women from a variety of organizations — from the military, to customer service — sharing their stories. The reactions have virtually all been from women who agree that they have had this happen to them, and have said, “Thank you for talking about this — I thought it was just me.”

The concerning thing with that reaction is I think it conjures images of the “Mean Girls” movie, and people will say, “Oh this is just high school all over again, and now it’s high school in the workplace, with women being catty and rude and discourteous. Go figure.” That gives me pause because there’s nothing in our data that says that women maliciously and intentionally go out of their way to be discourteous and rude to other women. Our studies are all about the perceptions women have. We don’t yet understand the motives behind why somebody would do this, or whether people realize they’re doing this, so we need to be very careful about jumping to conclusions.

But yes, the reaction has been affirming from women who have experienced incivility. I will say it’s also fascinating how some people have wanted to stretch these findings to apply them to things like sexual harassment in organizations, and far more egregious acts than we studied.

Mikel: Has your research yielded any insights into why people instigate incivility?

Allison: So the question is, do the instigators of incivility realize they are doing it? That’s the million-dollar question. It’s tough to design research into that because you need to have the person who experienced incivility identify the instigator, and then you need to get a survey into the hands of the person who instigated it. That, to me, is the dream data-collection scenario. We’ve toyed with how to do that, but haven’t yet determined how to accomplish that.

Another interesting question is: how do people react when they are accused of being uncivil? There are ways that you can foster that conversation, so it feels less threatening because part of the issue is that when somebody comes to you and says “I feel like you treated me uncivilly,” your immediate reaction is fight or flight. You’re going to be on the defensive, and will likely say something like, “That’s not what I meant,” and thereby accidentally diminish the other person’s experience because it was real for them.

We need to try to figure out how to study this so we can understand it and design training programs and interventions to try to fix this problem in the workplace. Our research has shown that incivility actually spirals – if you’re uncivil to me that’s depleting to me, and I ruminate about it, I think about it, and then instead of doing something good to cancel out this unfavorable exchange, I end up being uncivil to somebody else. In that way, incivility acts like the common cold and spreads through organizations. This research on women reporting more incivility from other women does create a ripple effect, so we need to figure out good ways to stop it.

Mikel: How is this workplace incivility affecting the overall workplace climate?

Allison: In the current climate, in light of things like the Me Too Movement, we find more and more instances of male executives saying that they are uncomfortable mentoring women. This is a sensitive moment in time that I don’t think we’ve effectively navigated, and I think we’ll be navigating it for a long time. The key question that keeps me up at night is how we can help women feel more comfortable and empowered to help other women rise versus viewing other women as their immediate competition because they’re concerned about their seat at the table being taken.

Mikel: Do you think that there is a workable model for male mentorship?

Allison: In short, yes: civility is free, and that’s the goal across all mentoring relationships. However, you’re getting at the core of the problem: it’s more about the fear of how our behaviors will be perceived. Because that’s where all this whole discussion is coming from — when we perceive that somebody was rude to us. Amy Edmondson talks a lot about this concept of psychological safety at work. To be clear, this is not a term to capture workplaces where nobody can criticize you — it’s about workplaces where people can have very open, candid, difficult conversations about things that they observe. People make mistakes when they overstep their boundaries, so I think the model has to be about creating workspaces where there are open discussions about behaviors, interactions, and goals, where people feel comfortable voicing up if something bothers them.

Mikel: I’d like to ask you about one of the more fascinating – and disturbing – underpinnings of your research on gender and incivility. Namely, that our efforts to make discrimination less socially acceptable may be driving it under the radar, such that out-groups may be experiencing more incivility in the workplace as a result. How did your study participants respond to questions about this? Can you give us some examples of how this happens and what it looks like?

Allison: I do think there is something unique about women versus men as an in-group vs. out-group because of the kind of prototypical gender stereotypes that are attached to these groups, specifically about women being communal and men being more dominant. I know there are some researchers here at the University of Arizona who are starting to study the intersection of race and gender with how people react to feedback or how people respond to different types of treatment within customer service exchanges. I am hopeful that we’re going to get better answers to those questions because I think that is the next step.

Our research tackled just two possibilities of how we can group people in organizations, but there is an infinite number of ways that all those identities can also start to intersect with each other. For example, how this plays out for a white woman versus a black woman in that particular in-group, we don’t know. We need to understand that question better.

Mikel: Let’s zoom back up and look at this issue of workplace communication from a different perspective. In another study you published in Medical Care titled, “Compassion Practices, Nurse Well-Being, and Ambulatory Patient Experience Ratings,” you focused on how organizations use positive reinforcement as a way to help employees recharge their emotional batteries. In the article, you crystalize a crucial challenge that healthcare professionals face, namely, how to overcome compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion. Aside from caregiver awards, what other compassion practices have you found to be effective in reducing emotional exhaustion and increasing psychological vitality?

Allison: Rewards and recognition are certainly part of compassion practices, but it’s also broader than that. You can provide support sessions or informal outlets for people to talk about the types of experiences they are going through. Caring for individuals and their families involves being with them during times of great joy, but also great grief, which is why compassion practices matter so much in health care. Compassion fatigue and burnout are just so embedded in that culture. Programs that reward employees — not just for caring for other patients, but also caring for each other — are part of the solution.

Mikel: Your study connects the issue of nurse well-being to patient care, and patient experiences seem to suggest that compassionate support for nursing staff also means satisfactory care experience for their patients. Where are employers missing the link?

Allison: An important takeaway for all organizations is that there can be recognition for people who treat each other compassionately in the workplace. I think compassion is getting a little lost at the moment. We’ve spent a lot of this interview talking about the very negative ways we can interact with each other, but the paper on compassion practices was trying to think about how we can support people and recognize and encourage compassionate actions. Doing so is not expensive — in many cases, it’s free — just by creating outlets for people to talk.

What we found in this research on nurses working within ambulatory care centers was that they not only felt better themselves, so they experienced less burnout and more feelings of psychological vitality, but the patients who left those clinics reported that their experiences were better. To me, that’s pretty profound. It suggests that if we care for the people in organizations who treat others compassionately, then it spills over to their ability to better care for the people that they’re in charge of helping. We talked about how incivility spirals and spreads, but this paper suggests that compassion can spread, too. When we reward compassion and establish it as a norm, then we can create a compassion spiral, which I think is miraculous.

Mikel: Well, I think that’s an excellent thought to close on — that while simple workplace communication can cause incivility to spiral and spread through an organization, there might be an equally powerful compassion spiral. Thank you very much for taking this time to share your research into the current challenges in workplace communication.


Gabriel, A. S., Butts, M. M., Yuan, Z., Rosen, R. L., & Sliter, M. T. (2018). Further understanding incivility in the workplace: The effects of gender, agency, and communion. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(4), 362-382.

McClelland, L. E., Gabriel, A. S., & DePuccio, M. J. (2018). Compassion practices, nurse well-being, and ambulatory patient experience ratings. Medical care, 56(1), 4-10.

Rosen, C. C., Koopman, J., Gabriel, A. S., & Johnson, R. E. (2016). Who strikes back? A daily investigation of when and why incivility begets incivility. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101(11), 1620-1634.

Recommended Citation: Mikel Chertudi with Allison Gabriel. (2019). Incivility, gender, and the workplace: Not so expected findings from three studies. Western ABC Bulletin, 1.2.