two hands holding respect ball to promote respectful relationships at work

Kindness Is Key: The Power of Respectful Relationships at Work

By Madison Hanscom, PhD

Respectful treatment is not always the norm in every work group. There are countless individuals who are required to interact with other workers and leaders who are rude, sarcastic, judgmental, and disrespectful. Incivility can be as subtle was a snarky remark, or as obvious as aggression.

Kindness really does matter at work. People thrive professionally and personally when they are surrounded by supportive colleagues they trust. When workers perceive to be in an environment that is civil (norms supporting respectful treatment among workgroup members) they are less likely to suffer from burnout and have higher job satisfaction (1).

The Power of Respectful Relationships at Work

Researchers have also shown there are negative consequences associated with incivility. These include decreased mental health, higher job stress, emotional exhaustion, absences, turnover, psychological withdrawal, and more (2,3,4,5). It also can impact the bottom line, tarnish the brand of the company, and bleed into a poor customer experience. This should not come as a surprise – dealing with rudeness and feeling disrespected is an unpleasant way to navigate work.

What can be done to promote positive norms for interpersonal treatment?

Random acts of kindness. There is no better way to promote positive norms of respect than by engaging in random acts of kindness. These do not have to cost money – they could be as simple as positive reinforcement. Congratulate someone on a job well done individually or recognize them in a team meeting for working safely. If you do have money in the budget, try coffee and donuts as a “thank you”.
Train. Sometimes training will be the best solution. Researchers have demonstrated that training interventions can be very successful (6). Consider a program with an emphasis in conflict resolution and one with many opportunities for interaction and practice (e.g., role play, conversational scenarios).
Look into resources. There are other resources outside of training that companies can consider to improve incivility. These can include a new code of conduct with definitions of incivility (to be used in performance management tools), mediation tools, reward programs to incentivize civil behaviors, and stress management.
Lead by example. Role modeling from leadership is critical. If leaders do not set the stage for healthy, respectful social interaction — employees will not follow. It is up to leaders to change their behavior and start moving the culture in a different direction.
Reframe conversations. Sometimes incivility can become a habit, thus breaking the pattern of disrespectful speech and behavior will be necessary. Think of all the things that are not civil (e.g., talking over someone, slamming a door, saying rude comments under your breath). Those all have to stop immediately. Exhibit the behavior you want to see by reframing conversations to be constructive and calm.
Reflect. Think about interactions that it did not go well and come up with strategies to make them better next time. Think of common scenarios that could be improved. A common one that leads to incivility is when negative constructive feedback is needed. If a coworker or subordinate is doing something incorrectly, consider a kind and constructive way of letting them know. A good reflection exercise can also be asking for feedback to see how you are doing.
Actively care. Take a genuine interest in those you work with. This could be as simple as asking them about their life outside of work. When you show people you care, they are more likely to let their guard down.

At Propulo Consulting, we care about the health and wellbeing of all workers. We partner with you to improve the world of work using the latest insights from research. Our team has the expertise to help your business build a safer and healthier culture.


(1) Cortina, L. M., Magley, V. J., Williams, J. H., & Langhout, R. D. (2001).
Incivility in the workplace: Incidence and impact. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 6, 64–80.
(2) Agervold, M., & Mikkelsen, E. G. (2004). Relationships between bullying, psychosocial work environment and individual stress reactions. Work & Stress, 18, 336–351.
(3) Grandey, A. A., Kern, J. H., & Frone, M. R. (2007). Verbal abuse from outsiders versus insiders: Comparing frequency, impact on emotional exhaustion, and the role of emotional labor. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 12, 63–79.
(4) Chiaburu, D. S., & Harrison, D. A. (2008). Do peers make the place? Conceptual synthesis and meta-analysis of co-worker effects on perceptions, attitudes, OCBs and performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 1082–1103.
(5) Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2009). Nurse turnover: The mediating role of burnout. Journal of Nursing Management, 17, 331–339.
(6) Leiter, M. P., Laschinger, H. K. S., Day, A., & Oore, D. G. (2011). The impact of civility interventions on employee social behavior, distress, and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(6), 1258.


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