Company Culture
3 min read

Workplace rudeness can spread like a virus

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Workplace rudeness seems like something we should all be able to recognize and avoid but researchers are discovering that may not be the case. It turns out that rudeness may be as contagious as the flu.

According to research by Trevor Foulk, of the University of Florida, our brains are programmed to react in a rude way, when we witness someone else being rude.

“If someone is rude to me, it is likely that in my next interaction, I will be rude to whomever I am talking to,” Foulk says. “You respond to their rudeness with your own rudeness.”

What’s worse is that we may not realize we’re doing it.

“It is an automatic cognitive process and occurs deep in our brains,” says Foulk.

Why workplace rudeness spreads

“It doesn’t just hurt your feelings,” says Foulk, “experiencing or witnessing rudeness hurts your performance.”

Employees dealing with rudeness spend more time figuring out how to avoid negative coworkers, worrying about the incident, and possibly taking it out on customers, other coworkers or family members. Rudeness is considered to be a form of stress that can lead to physical chronic disorders, reports a Huffington Post article - "A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists lead by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, shows that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause these brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults."

Research in the New York Times article, No Time to Be Nice at Work,  points out just how potentially dangerous rudeness and stress can be on one’s body. Christine Porath, associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, researched uncivil behavior at work. According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71% tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27% tied such behavior to patient deaths.

The study found that this contagious strain of incivility can come about more easily in workplaces that communicate heavily via digital means. Texts and instant messages have a much higher chance of miscommunication. Without the advantage of actually hearing or seeing a person’s body language or tone, the comms may easily be misinterpreted as unfriendly or hostile.

Rude behaviors by bosses most often cited, in descending order of frequency.

• Interrupts people
• Is judgmental of those who are different
• Pays little attention to or shows little interest in others’ opinions
• Takes the best and leaves the worst tasks for others
• Fails to pass along necessary information
• Neglects saying please or thank you
• Talks down to people
• Takes too much credit for things
• Swears
• Puts others down

Rude behaviors people most often admit to seeing in themselves.

• Hibernates into e-gadgets
• Uses jargon even when it excludes others
• Ignores invitations
• Is judgmental of those who are different
• Grabs easy tasks while leaving difficult ones for others
• Does not listen
• Emails/texts during meetings
• Pays little attention to others
• Takes others’ contributions for granted
• Belittles others nonverbally
• Neglects saying please or thank you
— (via New York Times)

The cost of workplace rudeness

Researchers Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos A. Zenios of Harvard and Stanford found that workplace stress is responsible for $190 billion of annual healthcare costs in the United States. In recent years, General Motors spent more on health care than it did on steel, and across the country, companies are struggling to find affordable plans for their workers. On the other hand, companies are implementing health programs in an effort to keep workers healthy—and productive.
While there is no cure yet for this workplace virus, simple gestures like smiling, listening, sharing and recognizing coworkers can go a long way towards making a healthier workplace. 

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