Mob mentality, cognitive biases and mistaking the effect for the cause.
Have you ever felt, perhaps in spite of yourself, that a subordinate was the ugly duckling of the team? Maybe it was never explicit, but that person was regularly on the receiving end of casual impoliteness. Everyone was a bit shorter with them, they were more likely to ‘accidentally’ not get invited to a meeting or CC’ed into an email, and the perpetrators were never worried about being punished. In fact, there is a collective sense that the behaviour is warranted.
Even if you’ve never encountered such a dynamic, imagine it. Based on no other information, how would you rate the performance of this person?
According to new research, it’s very likely you would mark them as below average.
Published in the Journal of Applied Psychology and written about by its authors on Harvard Business Review (HBR), the research found that victims of workplace rudeness don’t just experience lower engagement and a higher likelihood of health problems (mental and physical) and burnout. They also found that they were likely to be blamed for their mistreatment and “perceived as performing considerably worse on the job than employees who hadn’t been mistreated, regardless of the employees’ actual performance.”
What the researchers don’t say, but is stunningly unfair when you think about it, is that low engagement, burnout and health problems make you more likely to underperform. Which means that if victims somehow overcome the rudeness and actually perform well in their jobs – it likely won’t make a difference to how they’re perceived.
Mistaking the effect for the cause
Tracking this sort of bias is not easy, so the research paper actually involved several different investigations. The first entailed giving employees at a restaurant company a list of every other employee they worked with and naming who they had been rude to and who had been rude to them. These answers were contrasted with the opinions of managers.
“Notably, those employees who reported being victims of rudeness were largely perceived by their managers as perpetrators of rude behavior,” write the authors on HBR. They found that if an employee was reported as rude by colleagues, a close relationship with the manager or high performance would protect them from management feeling the same way.
Next the researchers conducted a similar survey, this time online and across many organisations and industries, that showed a similar leadership bias.
Finally, they conducted an experiment where working professionals were told to adopt the perspective of a manager and evaluate 10 researcher-created employee profiles. These profiles ran the spectrum of rudeness, some were victims of rudeness, others were perpetrators, and others were both or neither.
Depressingly, victims of rudeness were blamed for the mistreatment they received even when they weren’t rude themselves. And they were considered to be underperformers even when there was no information that they were.
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Leaders seeing the victims of rudeness as deserving the treatment is not just a human tendency, it’s a bias that aligns with a whole theory of bad behaviour.
In a 2018 study published in Industrial and Organizational Psychology, researchers from the University of Michigan explain how in the 1940s a criminologist and defense attorney came up with the theory of “victim precipitation”. Essentially it means that victims deserve some of the blame for the crime and argues that “if there are born criminals, it is evident that there are born victims”.
The theory organises victims into three categories. Those who are completely innocent, those who are ‘voluntary victims’ (the researchers give the example of spouses dying a suicide pact) and those who are ‘the most guilty’ (they give the example of someone who is killed by an act of self-defence).
The theory became quite popular and, while it has been largely abandoned in criminology, we live with its after-effects. In 1967, criminologist Menachem Amir explicated on “victim preciptated forcible rape”, which we hear echoes of whenever someone who is sexually harassed is asked about the clothes they were wearing, how much they had to drink, and if they had flirted with the perpetrator.
You can see why this theory resonated with so many. We naturally wonder at causes and strategise how to avoid negative experiences. If a child tells us someone hurt them at preschool, the first question is, “What were you doing?”
A better way
While you can see the sense in taking the victim into account when analysing the cause of the crime, the problem with victim precipitation is its framing. It focuses on the victim, which can rationalise blaming them and (in the words of the researchers), “deflect attention away from wrongdoers and the social conditions that set them off”.
Applying this to the workplace, if you were trying to reduce bullying do you think it would be better to relentlessly investigate bullies or train people how to avoid being a victim? The former isn’t just obviously more effective, the mere existence of the latter policy implies that every victim is also a failed student.
On the other hand, the difficulty with rudeness is that it’s a mild, less detectable crime that we’re all sometimes guilty of. Direct bullying is more obvious, an abrupt conversation or leaving people out of the loop less so. So how do you fix the leadership bias?
In the HBR, the researchers recommend training managers about the difference between “relevant and irrelevant information”; further awareness training on the forces that can shape decisions; and encourage a focus on job-relevant behaviours in interviews and performance reviews.
But another solution, one that seems very pertinent to the discussion of workplace rudeness, is a ‘civility intervention’. Last year HRM wrote about how a healthcare company used this to reduce burnout and improve patient outcomes. Amongst other measures, it involves creating psychologically safe sessions where colleagues can have confidential conversations about day-to-day interactions.
“A lot of rudeness is unintentional, clueless or inconsiderate,” Deakin University organisational psychologist Michael Leiter told HRM. “It takes a degree of intelligence and generosity to see things from another’s perspective and anticipate the effect of your actions on others.”
He also pointed out that you should go beyond trying to eliminate rudeness. “You need to actively encourage positive encounters, not just stamp out negative behaviour, to get maximum performance improvement.”
Returning to our maligned ‘ugly duckling’, let’s pose another hypothetical.
Imagine her team gathered together and, with the help of a trained professional, talked through its issues. They had the uncomfortable conversation about how she was being treated, and she got to share her side of the story. Then everyone agreed that they’d make sure people weren’t unprofessionally sidelined at work, start saying hello in the morning and made an effort to be aware of (and avoid) what other people considered rude. What do you think would happen?