Upset male sits alone and appears upset.
Rudeness is proven to negatively impact a company's productivity. Employers need to be both proactive and reactive to prevent and respond to incivility. — Getty Images/ fizkes

Workplace incivility, from sarcasm and demeaning comments to rude interruptions and outright hostility, can have a host of negative effects on everything from employees’ productivity and decision-making acumen to their mental and physical health. It can also spill over into bad customer relations.

But despite suggestions of an epidemic, rudeness that might permeate a company can often be traced back to one or two people, according to a study published in June in the Journal of Applied Psychology led by Shannon Taylor, a professor of management at the University of Central Florida.

“Rude behavior can be particularly devastating for a small business,” Taylor told CO—. “In a large organization, managers can isolate the source, keep the disrespect contained to one team or building, and then try to address it. But in a small business, where everyone knows and interacts with everyone else, a rude employee’s behavior can spread throughout the entire organization.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways a small business owner can spot and deal with rude behavior before the contagion spreads. And yes, rude behavior can be contagious.

The negative effects of incivility

Research has documented the powerfully negative effects of rudeness in the workplace:

  • Some 98% of U.S. employees experience rude behavior at work in any given year.
  • About two-thirds of them say incivility has caused their performance to drop.
  • Rudeness has caused more than three-fourths of employees to lower their commitment to their company.

“Employees who experience rudeness at work are less satisfied with their jobs, less engaged with their work, less productive, less helpful, and less creative,” Taylor said.

Rudeness can spread like a virus within a company, according to one study that found people who experience rudeness are more likely to be impolite themselves, and also more apt to perceive rudeness in other interactions.

When people simply witness rudeness in the workplace, it can cloud their decision-making in serious ways, due to a psychological effect called anchoring, in which a person fixates on one piece of information. Researchers examined the effect in a series of experiments and published the results on July 8 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

"While small insults and other forms of rude behavior might seem relatively harmless compared to more serious forms of aggression, our findings suggest that they can have serious consequences,” said study leader Binyamin Cooper, a postdoctoral fellow of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

In one of the experiments, participants were asked to negotiate a deal based on an initial offer, which served as the anchor. Those who were then exposed to a rude interaction were more likely to counter with a figure closer to the initial offer than participants who did not see the rude behavior, Cooper told CO—.

Other experiments in the study revealed how rudeness can interact with anchoring to cloud any number of decisions.

Imagine a business owner or manager working to forecast company performance six months out, Cooper suggested. It would be typical to first look at current performance, then make assumptions about the future. But if the person experiences or witnesses a rude event before making the prediction, they’re significantly more likely to base it on current performance and ignore other potentially important factors, he said.

While small insults and other forms of rude behavior might seem relatively harmless compared to more serious forms of aggression, our findings suggest that they can have serious consequences.

Binyamin Cooper, postdoctoral fellow of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business

How to foster civility

One way to steer clear of incivility is to weed out rude people in the hiring process, Cooper said, but he added that there’s little evidence to suggest such a strategy is effective. Instead, he and other researchers stress that employers need to be both proactive and reactive to prevent and respond to incivility.

“Employers should ensure there are strong norms for respect and civility in the workplace,” said Lauren Locklear, a researcher at the University of Central Florida and a colleague of Shannon Taylor. “Having a zero-tolerance policy for these rude behaviors is key to stopping mistreatment in its tracks."

Taylor offers tips on spotting rudeness: “Managers should be on the watch for hostility (eye-rolling, sarcasm, shouting), exclusionary behavior (excluding people from important emails or meetings, failing to keep people informed, general aloofness), and gossip.”

Rude behavior often stems from strained relations between two employees.

“So, rather than pouring a ton of money into a company-wide training program, small business owners can spend more strategically — and less overall — by targeting training at specific pairs of employees, or small groups of employees,” Taylor said. “And very small businesses — those without HR departments — can outsource this sort of coaching.”

Gratitude and appreciation can help foster civility across an organization, according to previous research by Taylor, Locklear and UCF ethics professor Maureen Ambrose.

“Managers could help employees recognize things they can feel grateful for — surviving the pandemic, landing a new client — and encourage employees to express their appreciation to coworkers,” Taylor said.

Indeed, the research suggests, a little civility goes a long way toward making a business successful.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published July 28, 2021