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Rudeness Alert!

September 14, 2015

By George Brown, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

The HR department is on constant watch for the next virus that might impact their workforce as the annual cold and flu season comes around.  Well, keep your eyes open for a different kind of epidemic – workplace rudeness.

Remember the old adage that if you give a smile chances are you’ll get one back?  Well, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, rudeness is just as contagious – and in its way it can be more harmful because it won’t just run its course and go away on its own. The damage it does is longer lasting, even permanent if you do not do something about it.

Researchers from the University of Florida did a study of behaviors among graduate business students about behaviors that came out as they practiced their negotiating skills with classmates.  Each student practiced with several other students over a period of weeks and then the students rated each others’ behaviors. A key finding was that those who judged their partners as rude were more likely to be judged as rude themselves. In other words, rudeness was contagious.

The study showed that rudeness activates a network of closely-related concepts in individuals’ minds. This activation influences individual’s hostile behaviors.  Another interesting finding of the study is that you don’t need to be the victim of a rude act to catch the bug.  Employees who simply witness a rude act are likely to be rude to other employees.

A whopping 98% of workers say they have experienced workplace rudeness, with 50% percent of people experiencing these behaviors at least weekly, according to the study.  Any and all kinds of rudeness, from simple insults, to ignoring a co-worker, to purposely dis-including or withholding information from someone, can create the toxic environment.

Not only does rudeness negatively affect the workplace; it has also been linked to more stress at home.

The findings were not surprising to Barbara Mitchell who writes the Ask the Expert blog on ASAE’s career website, Association CareerHQ. “When rudeness begins, it continues. I don’t know if people think that it’s acceptable if one person gets away with it so they try it too, or if it’s just the human nature of following the pack.”

 “To me,” Mitchell states, “it starts from the top. How does the leadership behave? What kind of culture do they want? And how do they live their own values within the organization? If the organization’s values are to not tolerate rude behavior, then I think that’s how you stop it.”

Organizations’ cultures, like those of entire societies and nationalities, are the sum total of learned behaviors and the social and business values they reflect. People in the organization observe these behaviors in its key leaders and each other. Intuitively they associate the behaviors with success, they adopt them themselves and they pass them on to new members. It is an intuitive process that nurtures and sustains itself unless and until the key leaders change the key behaviors to new ones that reflect different values.  Rudeness is a behavior. As such it can be changed, and the toxic culture it creates will change along with it. But the leaders are the ones who have to start the process and sustain it.

Keep smiling. That is not just a happy-face platitude; it is a real-world strategy that helps build a winning culture in organizations.

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