A Little Rudeness Goes a Long Way

How to stop incivility from spreading in your organization.

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Robert Nuebecker/theispot.com

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.

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1. C.C. Rosen, N. Dimotakis, M.S. Cole, et al., “When Challenges Hinder: An Investigation of When and How Challenge Stressors Impact Employee Outcomes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 105, no. 10 (October 2020): 1181-1206; and S.G. Taylor and D.H. Kluemper, “Linking Perceptions of Role Stress and Incivility to Workplace Aggression: The Moderating Role of Personality,” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 17, no. 3 (July 2012): 316-329.

2. C.L. Porath and A. Erez, “Does Rudeness Really Matter? The Effects of Rudeness on Task Performance and Helpfulness,” Academy of Management Journal 50, no. 5 (October 2007): 1181-1197; S.G. Taylor, A.G. Bedeian, and D.H. Kluemper, “Linking Workplace Incivility to Citizenship Performance: The Combined Effects of Affective Commitment and Conscientiousness,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 33, no. 7 (October 2012): 878-893; and Taylor and Kluemper, “Linking Perceptions,” 316-329.

3. C. Pearson and C. Porath, “The Cost of Bad Behavior: How Incivility Is Damaging Your Business and What to Do About It” (New York: Portfolio, 2009).

4. C.L. Porath and C.M. Pearson, “The Price of Incivility,” Harvard Business Review 91, no. 1-2 (January-February 2013): 114-121.

5. S.G. Taylor, L.R. Locklear, D.H. Kluemper, et al., “Beyond Targets and Instigators: Examining Workplace Incivility in Dyads and the Moderating Role of Perceived Incivility Norms,” Journal of Applied Psychology, forthcoming. Our 70% figure is in line with findings reported in L.Y. Dhanani, M.L. LaPalme, and D.L. Joseph, “How Prevalent Is Workplace Mistreatment? A Meta-Analytic Investigation,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 42, no. 8 (October 2021): 1082-1098.

6. P. Schilpzand, I.E. De Pater, and A. Erez, “Workplace Incivility: A Review of the Literature and Agenda for Future Research,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 37, no. S1 (February 2016): S57-S88.

7. J. Yao, S. Lim, C.Y. Guo, et al., “Experienced Incivility in the Workplace: A Meta-Analytical Review of Its Construct Validity and Nomological Network,” Journal of Applied Psychology (April 29, 2021).

8. J.D. Mackey, C.P. McAllister, B.P. Ellen III, et al., “A Meta-Analysis of Interpersonal and Organizational Workplace Deviance Research,” Journal of Management 47, no. 3 (March 2021): 597-622.

9. J.A. Yip, M.E. Schweitzer, and S. Nurmohamed, “Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motivates Rivalry, Performance, and Unethical Behavior,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 144 (January 2018): 125-144; and E. Kim and T.M. Glomb, “Victimization of High Performers: The Roles of Envy and Work Group Identification,” Journal of Applied Psychology 99, no. 4 (July 2014): 619-634.

10. L.M. Andersson and C.M. Pearson, “Tit for Tat? The Spiraling Effect of Incivility in the Workplace,” Academy of Management Review 24, no. 3 (July 1999): 452-471.

11. Y. Baruch and S. Jenkins, “Swearing at Work and Permissive Leadership Culture: When Anti-Social Becomes Social and Incivility Is Acceptable,” Leadership & Organization Development Journal 28, no. 6 (September 2007): 492-507.

12. D.L. Brady, D.J. Brown, and L.H. Liang, “Moving Beyond Assumptions of Deviance: The Reconceptualization and Measurement of Workplace Gossip,” Journal of Applied Psychology 102, no. 1 (January 2017): 1-25.

13. B.M. Walsh, J. Lee, J.M. Jensen, et al., “Positive Leader Behaviors and Workplace Incivility: The Mediating Role of Perceived Norms for Respect,” Journal of Business and Psychology 33, no. 4 (August 2018): 495-508.

14. S. Chaudhuri, “Jefferies CEO to Employees: No Jerks Allowed,” The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 2014, www.wsj.com.

15. R.B. Cialdini, L.J. Demaine, B.J. Sagarin, et al., “Managing Social Norms for Persuasive Impact,” Social Influence 1, no. 1 (2006): 3-15.

16. R.F. Baumeister, E. Bratslavsky, C. Finkenauer, et al., “Bad Is Stronger Than Good,” Review of General Psychology 5, no. 4 (December 2001): 323-370.

17. C.M. Pearson and C.L. Porath, “On the Nature, Consequences and Remedies of Workplace Incivility: No Time for ‘Nice’? Think Again,” Academy of Management Perspectives 19, no. 1 (February 2005): 7-18.

18. M.P. Leiter, H.K.S. Laschinger, A. Day, et al., “The Impact of Civility Interventions on Employee Social Behavior, Distress, and Attitudes,” Journal of Applied Psychology 96, no. 6 (November 2011): 1258-1274; and F. Sguera, R. Bagozzi, Q. Huy, et al., “Curtailing the Harmful Effects of Workplace Incivility: The Role of Structural Demands and Organization-Provided Resources,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 95-96 (August-October 2016): 115-127.

19. L.R. Locklear, S.G. Taylor, and M.L. Ambrose, “How a Gratitude Intervention Influences Workplace Mistreatment: A Multiple Mediation Model,” Journal of Applied Psychology 106, no. 9 (September 2021): 1314-1331.

20. L.R. Locklear, S.G. Taylor, and M.L. Ambrose, “Building a Better Workplace Starts With Saying ‘Thanks,’” Harvard Business Review, Nov. 26, 2020, www.hbr.org.

21. S.G. Barsade and O.A. O’Neill, “What’s Love Got to Do With It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in a Long-Term Care Setting,” Administrative Science Quarterly 59, no. 4 (December 2014): 551-598; and E. Delvaux, N. Vanbeselaere, and B. Mesquita, “Dynamic Interplay Between Norms and Experiences of Anger and Gratitude in Groups,” Small Group Research 46, no. 3 (June 2015): 300-323.

22. S.B. Algoe, L.E. Kurtz, and N.M. Hilaire, “Putting the ‘You’ in ‘Thank You’: Examining Other-Praising Behavior as the Active Relational Ingredient in Expressed Gratitude,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 7, no. 7 (September 2016): 658-666.

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