A Little Rudeness Goes a Long Way
As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, so too do exceedingly high levels of stress and uncertainty in the workforce. Hopes for an imminent return to a “normal” workplace have evaporated. Even in the best of circumstances, companies and their employees face many unknowns: How will they fare under hybrid work models longer term? How else will they need to adapt to survive and compete in a changing landscape? Will their businesses weather other unexpected crises? If they do, how will roles change? Whose jobs will be safe?
All of this takes a psychological and behavioral toll: Research shows that uncertain environments make people more likely to engage in rude, uncivil, and disrespectful behavior — and they make targets of incivility more vulnerable to it.1
That’s more detrimental to organizations than you might think. Employees who experience incivility at work perform worse in their jobs, are less helpful to colleagues, and are more likely to steal from their employer.2 Rudeness also hurts employee retention and the bottom line. According to one estimate, handling a single incident of rudeness can cost an organization more than $25,000.3
The vast majority of employees experience rudeness at work. In one study, 98% of employees reported being insulted, interrupted, ignored, or treated rudely in various other ways.4 As a result, researchers have described workplace rudeness as an epidemic. But our recent findings suggest that closer to 70% of employees experience incivility — still a lot, but not quite as many as previously thought — and that it spreads more like an endemic disease, wreaking havoc locally. In many workplaces we studied, outbreaks were traced to a single source: One office jerk spewed incivility like a contaminated water pump.5
Although few people behave rudely at work, the high percentage of workers who experience incivility means its impact is widespread, even if the perpetrators aren’t. And yet incivility is relationship-based. That is, it’s not just about the office jerk; it’s also about the dysfunctional dynamic between perpetrator and target. After all, even the biggest jerks don’t abuse everyone at work. In our study, rudeness was present in just 16% of workplace relationships. Thus, while most people experienced rude behavior, most of their relationships were not characterized by rudeness.
In this article, we explain why examining employee relationships that are characterized by incivility is essential to understanding and addressing this harmful and costly behavior, and we offer recommendations on preventing its spread at work.
What We Found
Typically, when researchers study rudeness or other types of interpersonal mistreatment at work, they ask people to recall how frequently they experienced bad behaviors — for example, being addressed unprofessionally or excluded from conversations — over some period of time (often, the past year). Participants are then asked how frequently they reciprocated bad behavior themselves during that time. A correlation between those two survey measures — that is, between experiencing and engaging in mistreatment — suggests that employees who are frequently mistreated also tend to frequently mistreat others. Trouble is, even when someone experiences high levels of mistreatment in general, it’s not clear why unless you look at relationship dynamics between particular coworkers. Since prior research tells us only about people’s tendencies to be rude or be treated rudely across all of their relationships at work, we took a different approach to get at the root of the problem.
When we surveyed restaurant and office workers in the U.S. and manufacturing employees in China, we asked how often they were rude to and were treated rudely by each employee in their work group. Across the three samples, we surveyed 598 employees in 119 work groups, some as small as four members and others as large as 40. All told, we examined 5,374 unique relationships among demographically diverse employees who worked in different contexts.
Why does workplace rudeness happen? We know from prior research that an employee’s personality, position in the organization, and other characteristics are major factors in determining the level of incivility that the person experiences or carries out in a given workplace.6 For instance, women and newer employees experience more mistreatment than men and more tenured employees.7 And conscientious and agreeable employees engage in fewer bad behaviors than their less dependable and less cooperative counterparts.8 But in our study, we found that the relationship between two colleagues is just as important as either one’s personal characteristics. Even if one employee (the office jerk) is rude to a lot of people and another (the office punching bag) is treated rudely by a lot of people, there is still something about their unique relationships with particular colleagues that explains how well they get along. In other words, certain pairs of employees tend to struggle with incivility above and beyond the level we would expect based on their general tendencies. Some relationships have a competitive dynamic, for instance, while others are characterized by envy.9 So, to prevent workplace rudeness, managers should focus on fostering civil relationships between individual team members.
What about workplace norms? Although rude and uncivil behavior violates interpersonal and organizational norms for respectful treatment overall, different work environments have different cultures and norms regarding what type of behavior is and is not appropriate.10 For example, profanity-laden name-calling is likely to get most employees in trouble with their boss or HR. But in certain male-dominated contexts — say, in construction, in food service, at a financial firm, or at a tech startup — such insults are often tolerated or even considered funny, friendly, and socially on point.11 Gossiping is another behavior that’s viewed as malicious in most workplaces but is used to wield influence in some environments.12 So, in addition to asking study participants how well they got along with each of their coworkers, we also asked them about the norms surrounding rude and uncivil behavior in their workplaces.
Specifically, we asked them to describe their organization’s descriptive and injunctive norms for civil behavior. Descriptive norms are beliefs about how people actually behave, whereas injunctive norms are beliefs about how people should behave. Although the two are often the same, this isn’t always the case. (Consider that most people approve of voicing ideas and suggestions to improve the company, but many don’t actually do so because they fear it could harm their reputation or career.) We were curious: Do descriptive and injunctive norms affect how rude employees are to one another? And if so, which type of norm matters more in fostering or stopping rude behavior?
We found that both types of norms — descriptive and injunctive — affect rude behavior at work. When employees experience incivility from coworkers, they are more likely to retaliate when they perceive that others in the organization engage in incivility relatively frequently (that is, when descriptive norms are stronger) and when they perceive that others approve of uncivil behavior (that is, when injunctive norms are stronger). For instance, at one of the restaurant locations we studied, employees were more likely to be rude to coworkers who were rude to them when they saw other employees insulting, ignoring, and making fun of other workers. At a different store, where the descriptive norms were weaker, employees were less likely to be rude to coworkers who had insulted or disparaged them. The injunctive norms worked similarly: Office workers who believed their colleagues felt that rudeness was acceptable were more likely to gossip about a colleague who had talked about them behind their back than were those workers who believed that their colleagues considered rudeness unacceptable. Interestingly, we found that injunctive norms mattered even more than descriptive norms: An employee’s perceptions about how their colleagues should treat one another had a stronger impact on rude behavior than an employee’s perceptions about how their colleagues actually treated one another.
What Managers Can Do
So, what should managers do with our findings? We offer three recommendations based on our current results, what we’ve seen so far in follow-up studies, and our observations from our consulting work with organizations.
1. Develop strong shared expectations for how people should behave. Managers play an important role in creating organizational norms in many areas of work life — for instance, attendance, safety, creativity, and performance — by providing a positive example with their own behavior. It should come as no surprise, then, that they can also set a civil tone in this way.13
That approach establishes a descriptive norm: Employees can see firsthand how leaders actually behave and take their cues from them. But given our finding that injunctive norms carry even more weight than descriptive norms do, how do you create a shared sense of how people should behave? You do so by also explicitly communicating organizational policies for civility. Jefferies Group CEO Richard Handler did this in a letter to the investment banking firm’s managers. He wrote, “We do not have or want jerks at Jefferies.”14 In one short, powerful sentence, Handler conveyed both the descriptive norm (“We don’t have jerks here”) and the injunctive norm (“We don’t want jerks here”). The letter went on to explain that “waiting until the last minute to hand out work, creating unnecessary projects or deadlines, or just being insensitive makes you a jerk.” Handler also spelled out what kind of behavior the firm does want. He encouraged managers to say thank you and be kind to junior colleagues, include them in client meetings, and take an interest in their personal and professional development.
Our results on the power of injunctive norms are in keeping with findings about curbing other types of undesirable behavior more broadly. Consider a classic study conducted by persuasion expert Robert Cialdini at Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park.15 The park’s existence is perpetually threatened because visitors steal tons of petrified wood from the forest each year, one piece at a time. To determine how best to curtail the theft, Cialdini and his team randomly exposed park visitors to information about descriptive norms or injunctive norms by displaying various signs in a well-trodden area of the park. The researchers then strategically placed 20 pieces of wood in designated spots and tracked how many were missing a few hours later. Signs with injunctive wording (“Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the park”) were more likely to reduce theft of petrified wood than those with descriptive wording (“Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the petrified forest”). It turns out that efforts to deter negative behavior with descriptive norms can be misguided, because describing the regrettable behavior as frequent sends mixed messages. As Cialdini and his colleagues remarked, “Within the statement ‘Look at all the people who are doing this undesirable thing’ lurks the powerful and undercutting normative message ‘Look at all the people who are doing it.’”
When it comes to workplace rudeness, you might think people would be more receptive to a positive description of the desired behavior than to being told what not to do. To be sure, it’s not uncommon to see positive appeals to descriptive norms — “Here at Company X, we are polite and respectful” — on the walls around the office or in leaders’ values statements or companywide emails. But negative information is given more attention by our brains and is thus “stickier” than positive information, so managers should instruct employees in what they ought not to do.16 Evidence suggests that company policies against incivility are most effective when managers clearly define what bad behavior entails.17 Otherwise, those policies will sound like empty slogans.
2. Provide targeted training. Because rudeness ultimately stems from relationships, we recommend targeting incivility training to benefit employees who are engaged in dysfunctional dynamics. This approach is more cost-effective than blanket training for the whole company and more easily customized to address the relationship problems employees face.
That said, we don’t recommend singling out workers for mild rudeness (though, of course, abusive, bullying behavior is another matter). Individuals could feel punished and resentful and resist training if they’re called out for something they may not even realize they’re doing. Instead, focus training on the teams or departments that struggle with a relationship problem you’ve identified — a lack of active listening, for example, or difficulty giving and receiving constructive feedback — rather than rolling out a generic civility program organizationwide.
There’s evidence that team-building exercises (such as icebreakers and role-playing) can reduce uncivil behavior and its impact on employee turnover.18 These practices help employees better understand their colleagues so that they can recognize and respond to one another’s needs. The exercises allow them to practice addressing incivility in a safe setting, and with coaching they can learn to build civil relationships and resolve issues constructively.
3. Encourage gratitude and appreciation. A final suggestion to address workplace rudeness is for managers to cultivate gratitude and appreciation at work. Our prior research shows that employees who spend a few minutes each day journaling about the people, events, and things they’re grateful for are less rude to coworkers.19 But as we’ve written before, organizations can’t just hand employees a gratitude journal and expect their behavior to improve.20 Instead, managers need to do two things: Regularly encourage employees to express gratitude and appreciation to one another, and show them how.
You can do both by building expressions of gratitude into your team’s day-to-day work. For example, start meetings by asking each person to share something they’re grateful for, create a dedicated Slack channel for employees to recognize others, or encourage employees to send one brief thank-you email to someone on the team every day. Research suggests that small but frequent gratitude expressions like these can develop into norms for gratitude very quickly, and other work shows that leaders play an especially important role in developing and promoting gratitude norms.21 So, when leaders engage publicly in these sorts of activities and ask others to do the same, expressing gratitude and appreciation can quickly turn into prescribed behavior. And once gratitude is the norm, it won’t feel like a chore. It’ll just be “the way we do things around here” — and the way things should be done. When the norm around the workplace is to build people up, it’s less likely that employees will put each other down.
Like many other behaviors at work, expressing gratitude is a skill that can be improved. Indeed, research shows that certain expressions of gratitude are better at building relationships than others. When a colleague does something helpful or useful, the most effective reply doesn’t describe how you benefited; it praises them for their good deed. For example, instead of responding with “Thanks, this made my job less stressful,” try “Thanks, I appreciate your taking time away from your work for this!” or “You’re really good at Excel!”22 When you focus on your colleagues’ contributions rather than what you gained, they’re more likely to feel that you understand, validate, and care about them, which builds and strengthens bonds.
More than a decade ago, Stanford professor Bob Sutton coined the “no asshole rule,” advising companies to screen out the jerks. While Sutton’s advice is useful for hiring and firing, it doesn’t completely solve the problem of workplace rudeness, because, as our research shows, uncivil behavior at work is determined not just by personality but also by the unique relationships an employee has with each colleague.
As organizations navigate through and beyond the pandemic, conditions will continue to be ripe for uncivil behavior. But by encouraging respectful relationships and establishing and communicating clear expectations, managers can make rudeness less likely to take root and foster civility as a part of the new normal at work.