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Turns out workplace rudeness can spread like a virus

Our brains are programmed to react in a rude way when we see someone else being rude. What does this mean for the workplace?

By Mat Luschek

Workplace rudeness seems like something we should all be able to recognize and avoid but in a recent WSJ article, researchers are discovering that may not be the case. It turns out that rudeness may be as unseen and as easily contagious as the flu.

According to research done by lead author Trevor Foulk, of the University of Florida, our brains are programmed to react in a rude way, when we witness someone else being rude.

“If someone is rude to me, it is likely that in my next interaction, I will be rude to whomever I am talking to,” Foulk says. “You respond to their rudeness with your own rudeness.”

What’s worse is that we may not realize we’re doing it.

“It is an automatic cognitive process and occurs deep in our brains,” says Mr. Foulk.

It doesn’t take an Ivy League shrink to understand that workplace rudeness leads to poor morale and unproductive employees.

“It doesn’t just hurt your feelings,” says Mr. Foulk, adding, “Experiencing or witnessing rudeness hurts your performance.”

Employees dealing with rudeness spend more time figuring out how to avoid negative coworkers, worrying about the incident, and possibly taking it out on customers, other coworkers or family members. Rudeness is considered to be a form of stress that can lead to physical chronic disorders, reports a Huffington Post article:

"A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists lead by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, shows that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause these brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults."

A recent NY Times article points out just how potentially dangerous rudeness and stress can be on one’s body:

"According to a survey of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel, 71 percent tied disruptive behavior, such as abusive, condescending or insulting personal conduct, to medical errors, and 27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.

The study found that this contagious strain of incivility can come about more easily in workplaces that communicate heavily via digital means. Texts and instant messages have a much higher chance of miscommunication. Without the advantage of actually hearing or seeing a person’s body language or tone, the comms may easily be misinterpreted as unfriendly or hostile."

These are the rude behaviors by bosses most often cited, in descending order of frequency.

• Interrupts people
• Is judgmental of those who are different
• Pays little attention to or shows little interest in others’ opinions
• Takes the best and leaves the worst tasks for others
• Fails to pass along necessary information
• Neglects saying please or thank you
• Talks down to people
• Takes too much credit for things
• Swears
• Puts others down

These are the rude behaviors people most often admit to seeing in themselves.

• Hibernates into e-gadgets
• Uses jargon even when it excludes others
• Ignores invitations
• Is judgmental of those who are different
• Grabs easy tasks while leaving difficult ones for others
• Does not listen
• Emails/texts during meetings
• Pays little attention to others
• Takes others’ contributions for granted
• Belittles others nonverbally
• Neglects saying please or thank you
— (via NY Times)

According to a Forbes article, workplace stress is responsible for $190 billion of annual healthcare costs in the United States. n recent years, General Motors spent more on health care than it did on steel, and across the country, companies are struggling to find affordable plans for their workers, in some cases dropping health coverage or raising premiums on employees in order to combat escalating costs. On the other hand, companies are implementing health programs in an effort to keep workers healthy—and productive.

The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States, written by Joel Goh of Harvard Business School and Stanford business professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos A. Zenios, concluded a shocking number of deaths are actually caused by workplace-related stress.

They determined, among other findings, that workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year . The biggest factor in this calculation is lack of health insurance (leading to lack of treatment), which contributes to 49,000 deaths; followed by unemployment, which contributes to 34,000 deaths; and job insecurity and high work demands, which each contribute to about 30,000 deaths.

Apart from incivility in the workplace, other related stress factors include long hours, lack of control, job insecurity, low pay, poor social support, conflicting/unclear demands and perceptions in unfairness.

“They are both inherently stressful on the body, and also lead to unhealthy behaviors like alcoholism and overeating,” says Goh.

While there is no cure yet for this easily transmitted workplace virus, simple gestures like smiling, listening, sharing and thanking coworkers can go a long way towards making a healthier workplace.