Passive Leadership May Encourage Workplace Incivility and Employee Withdrawal

Workplace incivility, or the use of rude or discourteous behaviors in the workplace, is a growing organizational problem that leads to negative outcomes for both employees and employers. Examples of workplace incivility include talking negatively about others, checking emails during work meetings, and failing to acknowledge another’s presence in the workplace. Experiencing workplace incivility can have lasting effects on employees, such as lowered creativity, job satisfaction, and commitment, as well as increased job turnover and burnout.

Previous research on incivility has identified the negative outcomes associated with witnessing or experiencing rude or discourteous behaviors while at work. However, it is also important to understand why incivility occurs, and the workplace conditions that may lead to employees engaging in this behavior.


One reason workplace incivility is so problematic is that it often occurs in a behavioral spiral. If employees witnesses or experience incivility and believe that it was done on purpose, they are more likely to retaliate with an uncivil response. An individual who experiences incivility may direct their retaliation toward the perpetrator, or even worse, an innocent bystander. Previous research has shown that 94% of employees who have experienced incivility from others have retaliated with similar uncivil behaviors (Porath & Pearson, 2010). This spiral of incivility can spread throughout the organization and can be very destructive if it is not addressed or corrected. 


Leaders that utilize a passive leadership style tend to be “hands-off” and fail to take action to address actual or potential problems. A passive leader may delay decision-making, ignore workplace problems, or display an apathetic attitude. Because passive leaders are not proactive problem solvers, this leadership style may allow employees to engage in workplace incivility without consequences.

A recent study (Harold & Holtz, 2015) examined 122 employee-supervisor dyads and 105 coworker dyads to examine how the supervisor’s use of passive leadership affected the incivility experienced and demonstrated by employees. The results of the study showed that passive leadership was positively related to incivility. In other words, when the leader utilized a passive leadership style, employees were more likely to report experiencing incivility and engaging in uncivil behaviors.

Researchers also examined how passive leadership affected employees’ behavior. The results from the study show that passive leadership was related to increased reports of incivility by coworkers, which in turn was related to employees themselves engaging in workplace incivility. Taken together, employees who work for passive leaders are not only more likely to experience workplace incivility from others, but are also more likely to engage in uncivil behavior themselves.


Workplace incivility can result in more negative work-related behavior and attitudes exhibited by employees. In addition, passive leadership may exacerbate these negative effects. Employees who experienced high levels of workplace incivility and worked for a passive leader were more likely to engage in withdrawal behaviors such as showing up late to work and taking excessive breaks. Taken together, the results from the study show how passive leadership can not only allow workplace incivility to occur, but can also affect employees’ own uncivil and withdrawal behavior. 


Uncivil workplace behaviors are low intensity, and as such may not be acknowledged by leaders. However, the current research highlights the serious consequences that occur when leaders react passively to uncivil behavior (e.g., eye rolling, addressing someone in unprofessional terms, etc.). Increased workplace incivility and employee withdrawal behavior may occur.

The authors suggest that organizational leaders are responsible for setting behavioral standards and that “civil behavior should start with the leader.” Therefore, organizations may be inclined to screen out managerial candidates who report a passive leadership style, or may invest in training their current leaders to recognize uncivil behavior.

In addition, organizations may benefit from implementing zero-tolerance incivility policies. By communicating to employees that workplace incivility is against company policy and will result in serious penalties, organizations can create a climate that is supportive rather than uncivil, which ultimately will improve the working conditions for all employees.