Study Finds Workplace Rudeness is Highly Contagious

October 27th, 2015 by

Sick woman at work drinking coffee

In today’s post, CAI’s Vice President of Membership Doug Blizzard shares the uncomfortable truth regarding the spread of negativity in the office. 

Peak flu season is still a few months away, but there’s another type of bug flying around the office that is just as contagious—and perhaps more harmful  – 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 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.

“What we found in this study is that the contagious effect is based on an automatic cognitive mechanism — automatic means it happens somewhere in the subconscious part of your brain, so you don’t know its happening and can’t do much to stop it,” explained the study’s lead author, Trevor Foulk.  “Anything from simple insults to ignoring a co-worker, to purposely dis-including someone or withholding information,” can create the toxic environment, he added.  “It doesn’t just hurt your feelings,” says Mr. Foulk. “Experiencing or witnessing rudeness hurts your performance.”

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.

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 and be respectful to one another. That is not just a happy-face platitude; it is a real-world strategy that helps build a winning culture and improve performance in organizations.  For more information about how you can build a more positive environment at your workplace, please call our Advice and Resolution team today at 919-878-9222 or 336-668-7746.

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