It won’t just put you in a bad mood. Rudeness in the workplace can even affect our creativity, memory and decision-making skills.
Imagine a world where rudeness didn’t exist. Your neighbour didn’t give you the side-eye as you crossed paths in the morning. Your barista didn’t huff at you when you mentioned that your coffee wasn’t hot enough and no one sent you emails IN ALL CAPS.
It would be bliss. But that’s not our reality.
While you might think a rude colleague is just part and parcel of the work experience, if incivility runs rampant it can have significant impacts.
These are the common impacts of rudeness in the workplace, but there are some not-so-obvious consequences that HR professionals need to be aware of, such as how it can impact our memories, creativity and decision-making skills.
HRM dives into some fascinating research and offers thoughts on how to combat each impact of rudeness in the workplace.
Effect 1: It reduces creativity and impacts our memory
Rudeness in the workplace can dampen our creativity because it affects our memory.
Creativity isn’t about having a single eureka moment. It is usually an amalgamation of several ideas over time. When we think creatively, we pull ideas from our long-term memory and hold them in our working memory.
An experiment from 2007 shows that when the study’s participants were exposed to someone who was belittling them, they came up with 39 per cent less creative ideas than those who hadn’t experienced rudeness.
Rudeness impacts our cognitive functioning, meaning we have less emotional energy to reach our full potential.
“On the cognitive side, we know that exposure to rudeness takes up a portion of individuals’ working memory, which is our limited ability to hold information,” explains Binyamin Cooper, Postdoctoral Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
“This happens because following exposure to rudeness individuals engage in rumination – consciously reflecting on the event, and attempt to understand the reasoning behind it and the meaning of it.”
Mindfulness aims to slow the brain down and bring you back to the present moment. A simple method is identifying three things you can hear, see and feel. This can act as a circuit breaker for your thoughts and help you think more clearly.
Effect 2: It impacts our decision-making skills
Cooper explains anchoring as similar to spotting a bear while hiking. In that moment you focus on the danger ahead (the bear) and your brain will filter out the information you’re capable of taking in from the surrounding environment, such as the trees surrounding you or the sound of a distant bird. It’s as if you put up emotional blinkers.
“Essentially, as part of our fight-or-flight response, we have evolved to focus on the cause of the arousal, so that information that is central to the source of the emotional arousal can be encoded,” says Cooper.
“While obviously not a bear, the rudeness-induced high arousal negative effect is sufficient [enough] to cause this narrowing and subsequent anchoring, making individuals more likely to rely on limited information when making their subsequent judgments.”
In Cooper’s study, medical students were asked to diagnose a patient. Prior to the diagnosis some students witnessed a rude interaction between their instructor and another doctor. Those who saw this altercation were more likely to misdiagnose the patient based on the first piece of information they found.
The students who didn’t witness this event were more likely to take on additional information and correctly diagnose the patient.
Even if you’re not making life or death decisions, it’s important to utilise all the data you have access to. Anchoring restricts that ability.
How to combat it:
The best way to reduce this is through information elaboration, says Cooper. This means consciously seeking additional information.
For example, here’s how information elaboration could look in a salary negotiation where the person who makes the first offer usually sets the ‘anchor’ for the negotiation (i.e. they put an offer on the table for the person to accept or decline).
“We asked our participants to think about three pieces of information that they would like to get from their negotiation partner before they had to make a counteroffer,” says Cooper. “We found that this exercise reduced the likelihood of anchoring taking place.”
“This happens because following exposure to rudeness individuals engage in rumination – consciously reflecting on the event, and attempting to understand the reasoning behind it” – Binyamin Cooper, Postdoctoral Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
Effect 3: Virtual rudeness can be worse and harder spot
When we are communicating with our teams solely online, a phenomenon called ‘toxic online disinhibition’ can occur. This means we forget our real-world social etiquette due the lack of connections we form with virtual beings – i.e. our inhibitions are lowered.
The term is predominantly used to describe cyberbullying and online trolling, the idea that anonymity can lead to a reduced sense of accountability because the perpetrator doesn’t perceive the person on the receiving end as a person.
What’s worse is that new research published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology suggests rudeness in the workplace is harder to spot in a virtual setting. This incivility can range from general rude behaviour, withholding information, arriving late to meetings or interrupting or ignoring a colleague, the researchers found.
“People have gotten used to not having to engage in interpersonal communication as much and that can take an already distressing or tense situation and exacerbate it because people are out of practice of not having to have difficult conversations,” Larry Martinez, study Co-Author and Associate Professor of Industrial-Organisational Psychology at Portland State University, told ScienceDaily.
How to combat it:
Martinez suggests that when employees have more autonomy in their roles, they are less likely to engage in workplace incivility.
Another solution could be simply keeping your camera on during video calls. Anonymity has long been seen as the main cause of toxic online disinhibition, but research suggests that a lack of eye-contact is actually the biggest contributor.
Although we might be feeling the effects of video call fatigue, keeping cameras on (at least some of the time) could help remind employees there are other people on the receiving end of their communication.
Effect 4: It increases perceived rudeness
Once we experience rudeness in the workplace, we start to see incivility everywhere.
Let’s say someone comes up to you and, in a neutral tone, says, “Nice shirt”. This can be interpreted a myriad of ways, but if you’ve recently experienced a rude encounter you’re more likely to believe that the person was being sarcastic or mean.
Trevor Foulk, Assistant Professor of Management and Organisation at the University of Maryland, explains this concept in more depth in an article for The Conversation. But here’s a very simplified version of what’s happening in our brains.
Imagine a bunch of switches in your brain. Different experiences can switch them on or off. Seeing a smiling face can flick on our happiness switch and activate positive emotions. Uncivil behaviour flicks on our rudeness switch, and gives us what Foulk calls ‘rude-coloured glasses’. While that switch is turned on, we continue to experience and perceive rudeness. Foulk’s research has demonstrated that this switch can continue affecting us for up to a week.
How to combat it:
So how can you turn off that switch? Perceived rudeness is an assumption made about the other person’s intent. To combat it, we need to try to see things from their perspective, without wearing rude-coloured glasses.
Perspective taking is the act of imagining what the other person is feeling or thinking and, in Cooper’s experience, it’s shown to help alleviate some of the impact of rudeness.
“We tested this by having participants visualise what a person thinks and feels at work, by ‘looking at the world through their eyes’ and ‘walking through the world in their shoes’,” says Cooper.
Perspective taking also puts distance between you and the strong feelings you’re having about the situation, preventing them from overwhelming you, he says.
Effect 5: We infect others with our rudeness
Rudeness begets rudeness. This point is particularly troubling, as it perpetuates the cycle, meaning all the other impacts mentioned above continue to poison a workplace’s culture.
In a 2016 study, psychologists tracked employees’ behaviour through the work day. Those who experienced incivility in the morning were more likely to lash out at colleagues later in the day.
“Exposure to rude behaviors has been shown to activate a semantic network of related concepts in individuals’ minds,” says Cooper. That’s those switches mentioned earlier.
“In turn, this activation influences an individual’s behaviors to be more hostile toward unrelated others.”
How to combat it:
The worst part of emotional contagion is it can come from outside the workplace but still harm your employees. This makes it hard to eradicate entirely.
However, Cooper suggests two approaches that employers can implement, one is proactive and the other is reactive.
- Proactive: Implement structured interventions that promote civil interactions. This can include creating rules of etiquette for your organisation and rewarding employees who call our rudeness or uncivil behaviour.
- Reactive: “A manager should strive to improve interpersonal relationships in the workplace and actively monitor and be able to identify problematic relationships that may lead to rude behaviors,” says Cooper. “In turn, they should be able to intervene to encourage or teach positive ways of communication.”
“Over time, these interventions can improve the organisational culture and discourse regarding rude behaviors, and help reduce their occurrence,” says Cooper.
Combating rudeness in the workplace can mean having difficult conversations with those perpetuating it. If you need to brush up on your difficult conversation skills, try AHRI’s short course.