In 2013, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher said the following during his address to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Leadership Conference:

“If you honor, respect, care for, protect and reward your employees, regardless of title or position … they will treat each other in a civil manner, in a warm, caring, hospitable way and you will enjoy the environment [that is created].”

Kelleher died on January 2, 2019. He was instrumental in building one of the great corporate success stories of our time. With total assets of over $25 billion in 2017, Southwest’s focus on internal and external customer service, along with a workforce of employees with “warrior spirits, servant hearts, and a fun-loving attitude,” has been foundational to that success.

But what about today? In the 40-plus years since Southwest was founded, our society appears to be growing increasingly polarized and divisive, with incivility seeming to be the rule of conduct rather than the exception. This sense of incivility inevitably spills over into the workplace; the notion of workplace civility is being challenged as never before.

Christine Porath, a business consultant and professor at Georgetown University, has done extensive research on how incivility affects the workplace. Speaking at a Google re:Work event, she highlighted her findings:

  • When people are asked why they resort to uncivil behavior in the workplace, they attribute it most often to feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
  • Incivility has a powerful negative effect on the energy, productivity and sense of well-being of the employees who experience it.
  • Two-thirds of employees withhold effort after experiencing incivility.
  • Eighty percent lose work time worrying about an incident of incivility, playing it over in their minds.
  • There is a similar effect on those who witness uncivil behavior. Fifty percent are less effective in what they are doing, and 28 percent are less creative in brainstorming.
  • Even reading uncivil phrases on paper had a negative effect. People were less able to notice important information, process it and use it in problem-solving, decision making and planning.
  • In a survey of 4,500 medical professionals, 71 percent knew of cases where uncivil behavior preceded medical errors, some resulting in death.
  • Incivility is contagious. After observing rude behavior, people were less likely to help others and share their resources.

Clearly, incivility has a significant impact on an organization’s culture and bottom line. Employees who experience or witness incivility disengage, and disengaged employees cost the economy over $450 billion in lost productivity each year.

At FEI, we incorporate brain science to help individuals and organizations perform at their best. Employees impacted by rude and disrespectful behavior are operating from parts of the brain associated with survival. Porath puts it this way: “Incivility robs cognitive resources, hijacking performance and creativity. So even if you want to perform at your best, you can’t.”

To be our most creative, productive, resilient selves, we need to use the parts of our brain associated with creativity, wisdom and well-being. We call it “moving to the front.”

Achieving a civil workplace is the responsibility of every stakeholder, from each individual employee to every organizational leader—even the organization as a brand. Colleen Barrett, the “cultural guru” of Southwest Airlines, based the entire corporate culture on the golden rule her mother taught her: Treat others as you would like to be treated.

This simple, powerful idea continues to impact untold thousands of employees, customers and organizations throughout the world. By taking a step back and allowing the problem-solving systems of our brain to re-evaluate our behaviors during tense situations, we can ultimately treat others as we’d want to be treated: With dignity and respect.

So, how are you treating others? The answer may surprise you.