How Rude! How Incivility Is Hurting Your Team

May 17, 2016 Sarah Payne

Incivility can be a surprisingly common and accepted behavior at work. Think back to past roles or even your current position. How often have you experienced small or significant moments of incivility and rudeness? Did it impact your mood and motivation at work?

According to Mike Sliter, assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University, incivility is defined as a “low intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm the target, in violation of workplace norms for mutual respect and courtesy.” Perhaps what makes incivility so prevalent is that it’s not always clear whether harm is intended.

New research on incivility

Workplace incivility is the focus of research by WorkHuman speaker Christine Porath, an associate professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. She focuses not only on the effects of bad behavior, but also how organizations can create a more positive environment where people can thrive.

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Christine shares that her research has found that 98% of workers have experienced uncivil behavior and 99% have witnessed it. These are high numbers, especially considering, as Christine notes, that, “Seeing or experiencing rude behavior impairs working (short-term) memory and thus cognitive ability. It has been shown to damage the immune system, put a strain on families, and produce other deleterious effects.”

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You can catch rudeness

What’s more, rude behavior and negative emotions are contagious. Trevor Foulk, a doctoral student in management at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration, recently conducted a study that tested the impact of witnessing rude behavior.

As part of the study, the study leader reacted either in a rude way or in a more accepting way to a staged late-arriving participant. Participants were then asked to respond to an email to a client. Foulk found that those who witnessed the rude exchange were more likely to answer the email in a rude way.

This study echoes findings from WorkHuman speaker Shawn Achor, who writes in The Happiness Advantage:

emotions are so shared, organizational psychologists have found that each workplace develops its own group emotion, or ‘group affective tone,’ which over time creates shared ‘emotional norms’ that are proliferated and reinforced by the behavior, both verbal and nonverbal of the employees.

What kind of ‘emotional norms’ have developed in your organization? Is there any way to shift or change those norms?

A Turn Toward Civility

Christine makes two suggestions to help individuals thrive, which may inform how we address emotional norms on an organizational level:

  1. Take steps to thrive cognitively (focus on growth and learning)
  2. Take steps to thrive affectively (focus on passion both at work and outside of work)

To help our teams thrive cognitively, Christine suggests focusing on mentoring: “Mentors have a knack for helping their protégés thrive by challenging them and ensuring that they don’t stagnate or get caught in an unproductive churn.” And thriving affectively is much easier, Christine notes, when workers are able to find meaning and a sense of purpose in their work.

Social recognition tied to company values is one way to ensure workers are continuously reminded of how their work is impacting the greater organization. And there’s research that shows the relationships built through a social recognition newsfeed can impact worker happiness.

In a piece on Psychology Today, Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D. writes: “Researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discovered that happiness spreads through social networks, much like a virus, which means that you can be infected with the happiness of someone you’ve never even met, and vice versa.”

Imagine the impact this kind of “virus” can have on combating workplace incivility and changing the overall group affective tone in your organization. If you want to see how other companies have found success in this way, read their stories here.

How Rude! How Incivility is Hurting Your Team @porathc
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