Interview with Kevin Schmidt

FRAMINGHAM (08/01/2000) - CIO: YOU SAY THAT INCIVILITY IN IT ORGANIZATIONS HAS A NEGATIVE IMPACT ON A COMPANY'S BOTTOM LINE. ISN'T THAT A BIT ALARMIST?

SCHMIDT: No. IT has a strategic importance that it didn't 10 years ago. You need people to do more, quicker--and what they're doing is more critical to the success of the business. Productivity must stay high. Incivility in the workplace has been statistically proven to significantly reduce productivity--through lost work time, cutbacks in effort and reduced commitment. The data also shows that incivility accounts for about 12 percent of turnover. Obviously, every time someone leaves you've got replacement costs and lost knowledge.

WHAT CONSTITUTES UNCIVIL BEHAVIOR? People think of civility as manners--as please and thank-you. But we're talking about something different: workplace norms for mutual respect. Incivility includes rumoring, making decisions without consulting others, failing to build consensus or even having a culture where every project is a death march. Nine times out of 10, people instigating the incivility do not even recognize it. Yet it can lead to project failure and increased turnover.

HOW CAN A CIO COMBAT WORKPLACE INCIVILITY? The beauty of it is that IT people are incredibly smart. Once they've been made aware of it, with a bit of help they can usually make a substantial change with good results.

We recently worked with a Fortune 50 company that had an IT staff of maybe 400 people and an IT budget in the tens of millions of dollars. But it definitely had a death-march culture. The CIO could call the president of any vendor and make things happen. But this power wasn't used because people were afraid to give him bad news. He'd react with tirades, refusals to listen, threats to their jobs. They were in the middle of this giant global system rollout, and pieces of the project were falling behind. People were afraid to seek his counsel, even though they knew he could probably help.

HOW DID YOU TURN THE SITUATION AROUND? We spoke to all the IT employees involved. We shared their perceptions with the CIO and did some one-on-one coaching with him. We helped him see how his uncivil behavior was paralyzing his employees. The intervention helped him change the way he interacted, which, in turn, changed the way his staff reacted, and ultimately drove up productivity and teamwork, even preventing some employees from quitting.

Debra Young is a freelance writer in Framingham, Mass. E-mail us at interview@cio.com with your thoughts on what makes a workplace civil.

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