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The Rampant Rise of Rudeness - Incivility at Work

Rudeness in the Workplace

“These may not be the best of times, and these may not be the worst of times, but for sheer rudeness, these times beat the dickens out of most times.”~ Roger McElvey, “Mr. Manners,” Men’s Health, May 1995

While leadership development programs may promote social and emotional intelligence, we’re not doing so well in our workplace interactions.

Over the last 14 years, thousands of workers have been polled on how they’re treated on the job — and a whopping 98% have reported experiencing uncivil behavior. In 2011, half said they were treated rudely at least once a week, up from 25% in 1998.

These startling facts were published in “The Price of Incivility”, a January-February 2013 Harvard Business Review article by Professors Christine Porath and Christine Pearson.

The Costs of Incivility

Most managers know incivility is wrong, but some fail to recognize its tangible costs. Targets often punish their offenders and the organization, although most hide or bury their feelings and don’t view themselves as vengeful.

After polling 800 managers and employees in 17 industries, Porath and Pearson learned how people’s reactions play out. Among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility:

  • 48% intentionally decreased their work effort.
  • 47% intentionally decreased the time spent at work.
  • 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
  • 80% lost work time worrying about the incident.
  • 63% lost work time avoiding the offender.
  • 66% said their performance declined.
  • 78% said their commitment to the organization declined.
  • 12% said they left their job because of the uncivil treatment.
  • 25% admitted to taking their frustration out on customers.

Incivility is expensive, yet few organizations recognize or take action to curtail it. This leads to several possible outcomes:

  • Incivility chips away at the bottom line. Nearly everyone who experiences workplace incivility responds negatively—in some cases, with overt retaliation.
  • Employees are less creative when they feel disrespected. When they’re fed up, they leave.
  • About half deliberately decrease their efforts or lower the quality of their work.
  • Customer relationships are damaged.

Rudeness Realities

Rudeness, whether verbal or behavioral, greatly contributes to deteriorating team spirit and poor performance.

Joel H. Neuman, director of the Center for Applied Management at the State University of New York at New Paltz, cites several common examples:

  • Talking about someone behind his or her back
  • Interrupting others when they’re speaking or working
  • Flaunting status or authority; acting in a condescending manner
  • Belittling someone’s opinion to others
  • Being late to meetings; failing to return phone calls or respond to memos
  • Giving others the silent treatment
  • Insults, yelling and shouting
  • Verbal forms of sexual harassment
  • Staring, dirty looks or other negative eye contact

While it’s truly overbearing to work for a boss who barks orders and belittles employees, most rude behaviors occur between coworkers. The more subtle and malicious forms of rudeness include gossiping, backstabbing, spreading rumors and sabotaging others’ work.

Poor Team Spirit

Simply witnessing incivility has negative consequences.

In one experiment, people who had observed poor behavior performed 20% worse on word puzzles. Witnesses to incivility were less likely than others to help out, even when a colleague had no apparent connection to the uncivil act. Only 25% of those who witnessed incivility volunteered to help (compared to 51% of those who saw nothing).

Lower Creativity

People are 30% less creative when they’re treated rudely, according to an experiment conducted by Amir Erez, a University of Florida management professor. Subjects produced 25% fewer ideas, and their suggestions tended to be less original. When asked about uses for a brick, their responses were logical, but not particularly imaginative: “Build a house,” “build a wall” and “build a school.” More creative ideas originated from participants who had been treated civilly: “Sell the brick on eBay,” “use it as a goalpost for a street soccer game,” “hang it on a museum wall and call it abstract art” and “decorate it like a pet and give it to a kid as a present.”

Rudeness Repels Customers

Consumers are uncomfortable when exposed to rudeness, whether it’s waiters berating busboys or managers criticizing store clerks. Disrespectful behavior causes many patrons to walk out without making a purchase.

In one experiment, half of the participants witnessed a bank representative publicly reprimanding a peer for incorrectly handling credit-card information. Only 20% of those who saw the encounter said they would use the bank’s services in the future (compared with 80% of customers who didn’t see the interaction). And nearly two-thirds of those who watched the exchange said they would feel anxious dealing with any bank employee.

Managing Rudeness Is Expensive

Regardless of the circumstances, people don’t like to see others treated badly. Besides the loss of customers, there’s a cost associated with complaints among workers.

HR professionals say that just one incident can soak up weeks of attention and effort. According to a study conducted by Accountemps and reported in Fortune, managers and executives at Fortune 1000 firms spend 13% of their work time, or 7 weeks a year, mending employee relationships and dealing with incivility’s aftermath. And costs soar, of course, when consultants or attorneys must be brought in to help settle a situation.

The Leadership Solution

The only way to prevent rudeness and incivility is to change the way an organization approaches problems.

Leaders must be aware of the company’s culture: Does it consciously or unconsciously allow for bad behavior? It’s the manager’s job to set limits on work behavior, enforce standards and policies, and deal with difficult employees in a positive way (early, so negative feelings cannot fester).

Examine your organizational culture by checking with the human resources department for complaints of unfair treatment or stress and disability claims. Look for patterns within a department.

Rudeness and workplace incivility can be responses to frustration, fear and uncertainty in high-stress work organizations, especially in an era of downsizing, globalization, new technologies, and economic recession. Stress can be mitigated by a healthy work environment, where employees are trusted and treated with dignity. Studies show that when people perceive the workplace as fair, they don’t act out. 

What Leaders Can Do

Leaders can have a tremendous positive (or negative) impact on the incidence of rudeness. Many leaders are under extraordinary pressure to do more with less, which often impacts their own well-being and tolerance levels. The two main strategies for reducing rudeness are relatively straightforward:

  1. Stay physically and mentally healthy.
  2. Model the right behavior.

There has never been a more important time for leaders to place priority on their own health. Identify strategies that boost your energy level. Take stock of your purpose, passions and positive strengths to become more robust and resilient.

Every person is different, but common habits that improve resilience include regular exercise, eating well and getting enough rest. It’s also essential to develop supportive relationships and outside interests.

It can take constant vigilance to keep the workplace civil. Let your guard down, and rudeness tends to creep into everyday interactions. Incorporate the following strategies to foster civility:  

  • Manage Your Own Behavior. Leaders set the tone, so be aware of your actions and how others perceive you. What you say and do is weighted and easily magnified. Model good behavior (actions and words). In one survey, 25% of managers who admitted to behaving badly said their leaders and role models were rude. If those who climb the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, employees are likely to follow suit. So, turn off your iPhone during meetings, pay attention to questions, and follow up on promises.
  • Express Appreciation. People need to know they’re valued. Be alert for what they do right, and let them know you’ve noticed their hard work and progress. People become frustrated when their efforts go unrewarded, thereby setting the stage for rudeness.
  • Apply the 5:1 Ratio.According to psychology researchers Barbara Fredrickson and Marcel Losada, teams are most effective when they hear feedback that is 5:1 positive to negative. Yet, work groups more often focus on what’s wrong instead of what’s right. It’s not that leaders should be blind to negative performance. They must, however, express 500% more appreciation than criticism if they want to see progress.
  • Recognize Small Achievements.Making progress on meaningful work is the most energizing and motivating event an information worker can experience, note Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer in TheProgress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work(Harvard Business Review Press, 2011). Effective leaders acknowledge even small improvements on a regular basis. This means employees must understand their exact roles within your company.
  • Establish a Positive Culture. Employees with a positive mood are 31% more productive, sell 37% more and are 300% more creative, notes business consultant Shawn Achor in “Positive Intelligence(Harvard Business Review, February 2012). Create a positive mood by supporting physical activity: walking meetings or flexible work hours that allow for daily exercise.

Communication Is Only a Starting Point

Don’t let outwardly positive communications mask rudeness. Positivity can be misused when an overemphasis on political correctness means issues are brushed aside.

Open communications must allow for dissent and reality-based conversations. Negative comments should be aired, but only in effective ways. Point out mistakes to clear the way for progress and appreciation, but be aware of your tone and word choices.

The one statement that best predicts employee engagement is “I have a supervisor or someone at work who seems to care about me as a person,” reveals Gallup research. A genuine interest in your direct reports encourages them to give their best.

Create group norms for how people should handle negative and positive behaviors. Share effective ways to give feedback and hold each other accountable.

Rudeness can’t survive in a culture with norms for handling errors. Achieve desired behaviors by teaching people how to express their opinions in a civil manner.

Civility can, indeed, be taught. As a leader or manager, you’re frequently teaching it in real time by modeling suitable behaviors. You may also benefit from working with an executive coach or mentor with experience in leadership development.

Working Resources is a San Francisco Bay Area Executive Coaching Firm Helping  Innovative Companies Assess, Select, Coach and Retain Emotionally Intelligent Leaders; Strategic Talent Management; Leadership Development; Competency Modeling; Succession Management; and Leadership & Team Building Retreats

About Dr. Maynard Brusman

Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders.  Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.

For more information, please go to http://www.workingresources.com, write to mbrusman@workingresources.com, or call 415-546-1252.

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