COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, is a real epidemic by medical standards and may become a pandemic over time. The problem requires the immediate attention and cooperation of global leaders and health organizations. With its prevalence in the news cycle and its effect on economic markets, however, you would think that we were all on the brink of annihilation. When it comes to other widespread and potentially dangerous illnesses, including influenza, we manage to take effective precautions without panicking. Those precautions do not guarantee us immunity, but we have put the risk in perspective without exciting unnecessary fears.
Sometimes, our emotional reactions to a threat can actually exacerbate the original problem. For example, in the case of COVID-19, images of health workers wearing face masks in Wuhan, China, have spurred many people around the world to stockpile such masks, even though washing hands regularly is a far more effective safeguard against infection—just as it is against the flu. Additionally, the global shortage of face masks caused by stockpiling behavior can put special populations at a greater risk of contraction and transmission, in turn making it more likely for the disease to spread.
The heightened reactions to this epidemic have made me think more about the ways in which we sometimes overgeneralize negative experiences and fail to take productive steps as a result. We have a tendency, I believe, to misjudge entire environments when we experience strong emotional reactions that cloud our ability to keep issues in their proper context. The question becomes how to manage exaggerated perceptions without dismissing real concerns.
These issues relate not only to literal epidemics but also to company culture in my field of HR. Imagine, for example, an employee has a recurring, negative interaction with a supervisor. When queried about his experience generally at work, he may view his supervisor as emblematic of the organization, particularly if the behavior continues over a period of time without a fair resolution. He evaluates the company as a whole based on his difficulty with one person, believing that incivility is inherent across the entire organization. In reality, he’s having difficulty with one person, and the organization is missing an opportunity to demonstrate its values and commitment to employees by effectively resolving the problem.
If accountability is lax—if the supervisor continues unchecked—that is a systemic problem. But when we hear about the rise of workplace incivility, we should also consider this natural human tendency to overgeneralize, even in data-based studies. Researcher Shannon G. Taylor recently published an article titled “Is Workplace Rudeness on the Rise?” lamenting the many poorly designed surveys that tackle the question of rudeness in the workplace. If, for example, 98 percent of workers at an organization have experienced uncivil behavior, the impression can easily form that there is nothing but rudeness in that environment. However, the fact that many people have experienced rudeness does not mean they do so regularly or with most coworkers. Incivility is often the result of a problem between two people rather than an epidemic failure of courtesy within the organization, or even within a branch, department, or team.
Such context is important, because we know that incivility, like the flu, is infectious in the workplace; even if it begins with only two people, it can affect morale on the whole over time. Far from letting organizations off the hook, the most appropriate, effective response is for leadership to pinpoint problems with an accurate diagnosis and swiftly administer a targeted remedy. Efficacy includes not throwing up your hands and assuming the whole organization is damaged when you could instead focus on helping fix a very specific, amenable problem before it snowballs.
When addressing workplace incivility, consider the following: Who is having the problem? If it primarily involves two people, does it revolve around a single issue? If it is more persistent, what has contributed to the longevity of this problem? Perhaps most importantly, what are the stated values of your organization, and how can you model them and bring them to bear on this particular situation?
Responding in a prompt, targeted way helps get organizations back on track before incivility becomes infectious. Keeping the response in context allows companies to enforce accountability more quickly and fairly, without overreacting or rushing to paint whole teams with a broad brush. The sooner a workplace problem is specifically defined, the easier it will be to keep it from being perceived as—or truly becoming—an epidemic.