Cyber Incivility: Dreading Your Inbox

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E-mail communications are becoming a major stressor in the non-profit sector. Explore the experiences of non-profit leaders and learn 10 best practices on how to manage cyber incivility.

Blog post by guest, Kristin S. Williams.

Redstone has the pleasure of welcoming Kristin S. Williams as a guest blogger this week on the topic of cyber incivility in the not-for-profit sector and how this can impact an organization.   

Kristin Williams is the CEO and President of Junior Achievement (JA) of Nova Scotia. Her goal is to broaden JA’s reach and impact on youth and produce more financially literate graduates with increased leadership potential. Prior to joining JA, she was the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia SPCA, where under her leadership the organization won eight industry awards for game-changing programs. Kristin is an active volunteer and currently serves as the Chair of the Community Sector Council of Nova Scotia. Kristin is currently completing her PhD in Business Administration (Management) at Saint Mary’s University.

Cyber incivility is a common communication behaviour, which is exhibited in computer mediated interactions (i.e. via e-mail). It has become a familiar, daily workplace stressor. Exchanges are characterized as aggressive, rude, inappropriate or disrespectful, but can also be discreet and not manifesting in language, but rather in intent.

Under the supervision of Dr. Catherine Loughlin at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, I recently completed an in-depth qualitative study about cyber incivility. My research involved 10 non-profit organizations from across Canada. Data was comprised of interviews with leaders and an examination of e-mail samples. The study posed the question: what are the triggers/predictors, implications and repercussions of cyber incivility and how is it operationalized in the non-profit sector in Canada?

There are four common circumstances which illustrate how cyber incivility may manifest in the workplace:

  1. E-mails which involve unreasonable expectations,
  2. Exchanges with difficult personalities,
  3. Exchanges which cause negative repercussions, and/or
  4. E-mails which cause an emotional reaction.

E-mail has become our primary communication tool, and with it, many new and complicated challenges have emerged. Matters best addressed via phone or in face-to-face meetings are being addressed via e-mail. Clues are revealed in organizational situations, which can aid in a prevention strategy, such as:

  • Differences in opinions and approaches regarding critical stakeholder relationships;
  • Volume of work and timelines, including reasonability of requests;
  • Inappropriate or misplaced assertions of power and/or authority;
  • Unclear roles and responsibilities across statuses and among peers;
  • Organizational tensions over how to operationalize the mission or mandate.

Avoidance is the most significant trigger and predictor of cyber incivility. Others include: anger, frustration, attachment, errors, complaints, conflicts, or differences in perceptions. More complex triggers include: a feeling of being wronged, personal dissatisfaction, an attempt to blame others, or an attempt to control others.

Perhaps not surprisingly, cyber incivility shares some commonalities with bullying, with many participants in the study citing examples which were abusive, antisocial, counterproductive, destructive or exclusionary.

Similar to bullying and other organizational threats, cyber incivility can pose significant risks, including financial, reputational and mission-related.  Participants were most frustrated by the distraction that such exchanges bring into the workplace, which draws focus and resources away from strategic priorities and mission-related goals. The implications are potentially widespread and costly to organizations and include: distress, compromised health, burnout, turnover, lost time, significant work for leaders and silencing.

Coping strategies are underdeveloped and elusive. Some leaders suggest managing and addressing the invasiveness of technology and creating appropriate barriers. Others focus on modelling and coaching. Most leaders voiced that being able to seek support and validation from peers is critical. Cautions were highlighted around being sensitive in diverse workplaces and work environments where different language, culture, or norms of behaviour may play a role in successful communication.

The leaders in the study helped compile a list of advice and best practices which are largely based on three key principles: sensitization, safeguards and sanctions. Here are the top 10:

  1. Take time to respond, re-read drafts and consider getting a second opinion;
  2. Use names and salutations and treat exchanges as a genuine and sincere form of communication;
  3. When exchanges are heated or likely to be misunderstood, divert to alternative mediums;
  4. Turn off digital communications when possible and create appropriate barriers at home;
  5. Resolve conflict as it happens and have a risk management approach;
  6. Direct communications appropriately and have the conversation with the right person/right level;
  7. Be aware of biases, check your facts and go to the source (avoid second hand information);
  8. Distinguish between a character issue and ignorance on the part of the sender (was harm meant?);
  9. Don’t take the bait, separate the trouble-makers from the solution-seekers; and
  10. Establish norms of behaviour within teams and when engaging external partners or stakeholders.

If you would like to read the full study, please contact Maddy Marchildon at Redstone ( and she will connect you directly with Kristin.

Citation: Williams, K.S. & Loughlin, C. (2015). Cyber incivility: Experiences of Canadian Non-Profit Leaders. Unpublished manuscript, Sobey School of Business, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS.

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