So it’s not just me …

In an interesting study recently published in the Journal of Applies Psychology and summarized in British Pscyhological Society’s Research Digest:

Male and female employees who said they had witnessed either the sexual harassment of female staff, or uncivil, rude or condescending behaviour towards them, tended to report lower psychological well-being and job satisfaction. In turn, lower psychological well-being was associated with greater burn out and increased thoughts about quitting.


Crucially, while these negative effects were not large, they were associated purely with observing the mistreatment of others, not with being a victim of mistreatment oneself – the researchers took account of that (for participants of both sexes) in their statistical analysis.

It’s especially interesting to see “uncivil behavior” called out. There have been several times in the last few years where for one reason or another I’ve spent a chunk of time in environments where this kind of behavior towards women is normalized, and it certainly does have those effects on me — and many others I talk to.

One of the clearest examples was at Microsoft with the Litebulb distribution list (DL), where the attack-based and disrespectful norms of discourse combine with the 99% male participation and lack of understanding of “soft” (i.e., feminine-identified) disciplines such as marketing, communication theory, and diversity to create an enviroment that’s extremely hostile to women. Since it was (and probably still is) the largest innovation-focused DL at Microsoft, and filled with intelligent and analytical people, it was a key potential channel for culture change — and a fertile recruiting ground for my Ad Astra work — so from time to time I participated; and I could really notice the difference in my state of mind just being surrounded by that attitude. Quite a few people, of all genders, who had stopped participating there told me that they felt noticeably less irritable at work as a result; and with several colleagues, I could see real differences in their behaviors more generally that appeared to correlate with how much time they were spending on the DL. Of course this is all anecdotal, but very consistent with the results from this study — and elsewhere. As Bob Sutton points out:

This research is so important because — consistent with prior research on bullying — it provides further evidence that allowing assholes to run rampant in an organization doesn’t just hurt the victims, it hurts everyone.

While the study specifically looked at gender issues, this dynamic is likely to generalize to a large extent to other diversity- or power-based dimensions. It’s also interesting to think about how this might apply to other contexts, such as social networks — so for example the Kathy Sierra episode, and more generally the lack of civility of large factions of both the progressive and neocon blogospheres.

I’m a big believer in the importance of civil discourse for many reasons; looks like I just added another to my list.