“I’m Just Being Honest!” Terrell Owens and Incivility in Business

I enjoy watching the series A Football Life, produced by the NFL Channel.
Recently, I watched the episode that was focused on the professional life of Terrell Owens. I thought the producers did a good job of balancing his remarkable athletic abilities against his damaging incivility off the field. As is true with nearly all highly talented people, their inability to manage the relationship aspects of their career cause them to accomplish less than what they should have given their brains, talents and opportunities. Terrell Owens is no exception.

For those who have not heard of or remember who Terrell Owens was, he was arguably one of the greatest wide receivers in the history of the NFL. His remarkable career includes holding a number of NFL records, such as being the only player in NFL history to score two or more touchdowns (TD) against all thirty-two NFL teams. But his incivility kept damaging his relationships where ever he went, so he was traded or let go time after time. He played for a plethora of teams during his twelve years, including the San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals, Seattle Seahawks and the Dallas Cowboys.

Unfortunately, his remarkable career is noteworthy as much for what he said off the field as what he did on the field. His on-the-field accomplishments were offset by his off-the-field incivility. His comments kept getting him in trouble and repeatedly created the situation in which his on-the-field value became less than the off-the-field headaches and conflicts he created. You can read a summary of his incivility at the Wikipedia page about him (look under the section titled Controversies).

In the Football Life story, Terrell defended himself by asserting that each time “I was just being honest”. It seemed that whatever came to his mind leaked out of his mouth, with little thought as to how his words would affect his team, his fans or the NFL itself. To his way of thinking, if he was honest, then others should have found his words acceptable.

What he never learned (or was unwilling to admit) was that unvarnished honesty without tact is the essence of being rude or uncivil. Incivility is the opposite of President Washington’s advice in his book Rules of Civility: “Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.” [sic] If there any single thing you can do to create distance and conflict between yourself and others, just be rude and immodest. Terrell Owens did this, at times, in spades.

Incivility isn’t limited to the NFL. It can kill your business by killing the relationships within your business. In their well-researched book The Cost of Bad Behavior, the authors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath summarized their research as follows:

“…incivility harmed performance by affecting two specific elements: motivation and ability. When treated uncivilly, people stopped performing, or they stopped performing as well as they could. Job satisfaction waned. Anger at the organization rose. The result was that people were simply not as motivated. Their performance dropped as they cut back effort, quality and time.” (p. 52)

Then authors detailed what their research revealed about the effects of bad behavior in the workplace for those on the receiving end of uncivil behavior (p. 55):

  • 48% intentionally decreased work effort
  • 47% intentionally decreased time at work
  • 38% intentionally decreased work quality
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender
  • 66% said their performance declined
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined

So why is it that people who engage in uncivil behavior are often accommodated in the workplace? Authors Paul Babiak and Robert Hare surmise in their book Snakes in Suites: When Psychopaths Go to Work that hiring managers often mistake leadership for what is, essentially uncivil behavior. In addition, if the uncivil person is especially talented and can achieve the goals handed to him or her, often, senior management will look the other way when their incivility becomes a problem. When push comes to shove, profits and success trump culture in many organizations.

If you’re a business owner or leader, you need to take seriously the effects incivility can have on your team, department or company. When you see uncivil behavior, you should see it for what it is: creating opportunity costs and sending the signal to your top talent that they should consider looking elsewhere for work where the workplace ambiance is more palatable. In addition, take the following specific actions.

First, document what you saw and what was reported to you. You’ll need to do this anyways for their personnel file and it will help you later when you sit down to discipline your uncivil employee.

Secondly, sit down with the offending individual and explain what they did and said. Further explain that their behavior was unacceptable. Plan on them disagreeing with you and deflecting by blaming others, blaming you, minimizing the effects of what they did and said, denying they did or said anything and so forth. They might be so convincing that you’ll find yourself questioning your own experience and actions. Uncivil people can be masters at manipulation too.

Thirdly, stick to your guns and give them a one-time warning that if they become uncivil again, they’ll be looking for another job. No business culture can sustain the employ of an uncivil person and expect to retain top talent and achieve stretch goals. It simply isn’t going to happen. You’ll have to choose between the uncivil individual and the success of your team or company.

Fourthly, give this person (and everyone else) training on how to be civil in word and deed. Civility is not that hard to attain and it gains you so much more in terms of productivity that one wonders why any business leader would ignore it. Amazingly, many people never get any civility or etiquette training. But is an excellent way to grow your team.

Fifthly, check yourself. Find an Executive Coach who can help you understand your strengths and those elements that derail you. Focus on what you can do to improve relationships with those in your sphere of influence. Learn how to build your team or business through improved relationships.

Lastly, check your hiring practices and look for ways to weed out uncivil people in your hiring process. Ideas on this would include consideration of using an outside organizational psychologist to test people before they are hired or having a wide range of interviews in different locations so that multiple employees can observe the individual in different interactions. These and other methods can help improve your hiring practices.

Don’t let uncivil behavior fester in your organization. At the least, unchecked incivility will significantly harm your business. At the most, it will kill it.

Bill English


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