Being Rude at Work is Contagious, Study Finds

December 7, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Photo of man yelling through a megaphone at an exasperated woman. Both dressed in workplace casual.
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Turns out rudeness is up there with yawns and colds.

Rudeness in the workplace may be an issue that deserves more attention than simply being shrugged off as unpleasant or immature behavior — in fact, researchers found that being rude at work is actually contagious.

In the context of the study, “rudeness” involves anything that “goes under the radar for what is prohibited and that in some way violate the norm for mutual respect,” according to the press release. Under this definition, rudeness may refer to purposely excluding someone from information, “forgetting” to invite someone to an event, spreading rumors, taking credit for the work of others, sending malicious emails, or never giving subordinates praise for good work.

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Psychologists at Lund University in Sweden surveyed nearly 6,000 people on the social climate in their workplace. Not only did the findings show that rudeness is one of the major reasons for dissatisfaction at work, but they revealed that this unpleasant behavior tends to spread if nothing is done about it.

"It's really about behaviour that is not covered by legislation, but which can have considerable consequences and develop into outright bullying if it is allowed to continue," Eva Torkelson, who is leading the project on rudeness as a social process in organizations (financed by the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, or FORTE), said in a press release.

Bullying in the workplace is quite well-documented, Torkelson says, but the rudeness that often turns into bullying is overlooked.

The study found that the most common way in which workplace rudeness manifested itself was in the form of imitating the behavior of other colleagues, and 75 percent of the survey respondents claimed that they’d been subjected to rudeness at least once or twice in the past year.

Since the most common form of rudeness is to imitate the behavior of others, this may encourage a “vicious circle with considerable consequences for the entire workplace,” according to the press release. These consequences may include reduced job satisfaction, staff members who work less efficiently or seek jobs elsewhere, and unsurprisingly, more conflict between colleagues.

Interestingly, the researchers found that those who behave rudely at work actually experience stronger social support, and this “probably makes them less afraid of negative reactions to their behaviour from managers and colleagues", says Martin Bäckström, Professor of Psychology. Perhaps there’s some sort of intimidation factor going on, but this finding suggests that in order for a workplace bully to back down, he or she must feel as though the rude behavior will not be tolerated.

Torkelson thinks the solution to the problem lies in better training staff and managers. "When people become aware of the actual consequences of rudeness, it is often an eye-opener", she says. "And, of course, most people do not want to be involved in making the workplace worse."

So now that you know rudeness at work is contagious, don’t be that guy (or girl). Just because you’re feeling like a Grinch one day doesn’t mean the whole office has to go down with you!

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