Tackling the growing problem of workplace rudeness

The co-worker never responded to emails. He ignored colleagues’ comments on conference calls. When meeting invites were sent to him, he typically didn’t respond. For decades, managers would typically overlook these minor workplace slights, focusing their attention on more overt outbursts and discrimination.

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Now, new research suggests that, in the pandemic era, managers and their firms may need to address workplace rudeness head-on. According to a recent McKinsey report, incivility had already doubled in the last two decades before COVID-19, and some call it endemic. Now, some 95% of workers say they consistently experience incivility at work, but only 9% report it to management, according to workplace research by management professors Christine Pearson and Christine Porath, authors of the aptly titled book, The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It.

Author James Bywater

Experts are alarmed because of the impact of workplace rudeness: A new meta analysis of 70 studies of 35,344 workers, led by organizational psychologist Larry Martinez at Portland State University, finds that workplace incivility festers and multiplies, it ripples through teams and organizations and causes more damage than previously thought. This is particularly true among certain types of workers–those with less control over their jobs, young employees and those exposed to frequent rudeness. Martinez says hybrid work is likely increasing these behaviors because employees communicating via Slack, Zoom or text message are often unable to communicate good intentions, compounded by the fact that employees are out of practice at workplace social graces.

See also: 5 tips to avoid free speech issues amid COVID

To be clear, we’re not talking about yelling or other inappropriate workplace behaviors, but rather about small snubs and rebuffs, which experts say are an enormous problem. Victims of poor workplace behavior, as well as the observers and the perpetrators, all suffer when it comes to employee performance, learning and interactions.

The most pressing issue is how incivility distracts employees’ attention and impairs their decision-making, according to a fresh study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. After workers experience a mild brush-off or cold shoulder by colleagues, they tend to brood on it, and this impairs cognitive functioning. They’re more likely to fixate on narrow pieces of information and come to limited and inaccurate conclusions rather than evaluating a scenario objectively. This particular study followed surgeons who, after being faced with workplace incivility, were more likely to incorrectly diagnose health ailments.

One way to avoid such outcomes is the smart recruitment of managers and executives who are caring and empathetic. For example, a boss who answers emails in three words and walks out of rooms abruptly will breed a staff with the same behaviors.

One panacea may be training employees and managers to develop their situational self-awareness and then giving them the techniques to calm themselves, for the simple reason that relaxed, grounded workers who are aware of the impact they have on people are much less likely to be rude or offensive in the first place. The coaching to get there often starts with simple breathing techniques, but different strategies work for different employees.

Related: Vaccine mandates are growing. Here’s how employees feel about them

Ultimately, it’s about teaching people to recognize their state and then get themselves to calm, especially when they feel themselves getting riled up. It’s an approach that employees, managers and leaders can all benefit from. After all, a deserved reputation for impatience or rudeness is rarely good for a leader’s career.

James Bywater
James Bywater is an associate client partner and solution architect at Korn Ferry.

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