Workplace Rudeness Is Highly Contagious, Study Says

Rude coworkers can make your blood boil, and, according to a new study, their bad behavior can spread like a virus. An HR consultant shares some tips for preventing the sickness from infecting the whole office.

Peak flu season is still a few months away, but there’s another type of bug flying around the office that is just as contagious—and perhaps more harmful.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, employees are in danger of catching coworkers’ rudeness, and they don’t have control over how far and wide that negative behavior spreads.

It starts from the top of the association. How does the leadership behave? How do they live their own values within the organization?

Researchers from the University of Florida tracked graduate business school students who were practicing negotiation techniques with their classmates. Each student practiced with multiple partners over a seven-week period, and in the end they found that students who rated their partners as rude were more likely to be judged as rude themselves.

“Just like the common cold, common negative behaviors can spread easily and have significant consequences for people in organizations,” researchers said.

And to catch someone’s rudeness, an employee didn’t even have to be the main target of the initial bad behavior. Those who witnessed rudeness were just as likely to be rude to others.

The findings were not surprising to Barbara Mitchell, a human resources consultant and author of the upcoming book The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook.

“There are so many things that happen in the workplace that kind of spiral, and that’s what I took from the study,” said Mitchell, who writes the Ask the Expert blog on ASAE’s career website, Association CareerHQ. “When rudeness begins, it continues. I don’t know if people think that it’s acceptable if one person gets away with it so they try it too, or if it’s just the human nature of following the pack.”

The presence of that kind of behavior at an association or in an office setting goes back to the organization’s culture, said Mitchell.

“If you let things be like the wild west and everybody goes out and does their own thing—that really impacts the kind of culture that you have,” she said. “To me, it starts from the top of the association. How does the leadership behave? What kind of culture do they want? And how do they live their own values within the organization? If the organization’s values are to not tolerate rude behavior, then I think that’s how you stop it.”

Addressing bad behavior immediately and effectively is key to keeping the ship together, Mitchell said. “With any kind of performance issue, feedback has to be immediate. If you see someone who is not behaving the way that you want your employees to behave, you privately call them on it.”

If you notice the culture at your organization taking a turn for the worse, change is possible, Mitchell said, but it’s not as easy as flipping a switch.

“You have to go about it in a very positive way,” she said. Leaders have to look at “what the values of the organization are, how they communicate, how they give feedback to their employees, how they address issues from top to bottom—those are the things that set your culture.”


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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