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What is the 'cost' of rudeness?

The unexpected contagion, contamination, and self-harming effects of rudeness at work.

No one likes to be treated rudely, but of course, it happens. And when it does, sometimes we just have to suck it up and carry on. The workplace isn’t perfect and people aren’t always going to get along - but are behaviors like putting others down, excluding people, or cutting people off really inevitable? And what is the true ‘cost’ of rudeness and incivility? Several different streams of research suggest that costs associated with rudeness and incivility are really quite high, and often affect multiple people: the target (which is probably obvious), the person who enacted the rudeness, and even observers who had nothing to do with the interaction.

In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology reports that even simply witnessing an instance of rude work interaction can lead to an increase in the chance that an observer would treat someone else rudely later that same day. So rudeness, it turns out, is contagious like the common cold; you don’t have to get sneezed on to catch the virus – simply being around someone with the cold may be enough.

Findings from another study suggest that rude behavior may not only be contagious, but also contaminating. Daily surveys were conducted with 81 working professional and managerial employees for 10 consecutive days. Each morning, participants witnessed either a rude work interaction or a neutral interaction by watching videos of trained actors. Those in the experimental condition who witnessed morning rudeness, compared to those participants in the control condition, had increased perceptions of workplace rudeness throughout the day – they looked for it more and perceived it to be more of a problem.

Research also shows that incivility may come back to hurt the instigator. A daily study of 116 professional and managerial employees over 10 consecutive workdays showed that while feeling psychologically powerful increases managers’ likelihood to enact disrespectful interactions with others, this negative interaction, in turn, harms managers’ own subsequent well-being by reducing their ability to relax after work and reducing fulfilment of their needs.

So is rudeness just an inevitability? The clear answer is no – and leaders can set the tone in minimizing the real and negative impact of a culture of incivility. Here are two things leaders can consider:    

  1. Establish respect as the norm of interaction: Be clear that respectful behavior is expected. Set expectations and call it out every time you see it. Your team will start to get the message and it can actually change the way people treat each other.
  2. Have someone call you out: Have someone you trust let you know if they see you acting rudely towards someone. Sometimes we’re not even aware of what we’re doing and the impact it may have – especially when we’re busy on tight deadlines and under high pressure.

About the writers

Sibel Writer

Sibel Ozgen Novelli
Graduate Assistant

Nathan J. Hiller, Ph.D.
Academic Director
Associate Professor of Managment and International Business