Briefings Magazine

Psst—Don’t Be a Jerk

In today’s more mindful era, managers need to understand that rudeness comes in many forms.

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By Arianne Cohen

A driver honking loudly. A grumpy server. Seinfeld’s Newman. When you think of rudeness, you think of its more virulent strains. But mild rudeness, it turns out, can undermine your company’s culture and bottom line in devastating ways. A November survey by Korn Ferry finds that workplace incivility is rampant, with 70 percent of respondents saying that remote work has bolstered rude behavior like call interruptions and ignoring emails, and 75 percent saying that they’ve considered quitting due to an uncivil coworker.

“Rudeness is contagious. It’s like the flu,” says business psychologist James Bywater, a solution architect at Korn Ferry. “Everyone catches it, and there’s a lot of collateral damage.” He says that employee performance, engagement, and interactions are all negatively affected, in observers, victims, and perpetrators alike. To be clear, we’re not talking about bosses swearing or managers throwing printers. We’re talking about small snubs and rebuffs, such as giving a colleague the cold shoulder or ignoring a coworker in a meeting.

The most pressing issue, says Bywater, is how incivility distracts people’s attention so that their perspective narrows. “It makes people a lot less good at learning,” he says. It also impairs their decision making, according to a fresh study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. After workers experience a mild brush-off or cold shoulder, they’re more likely to fixate on one piece of information and draw inaccurate conclusions than to evaluate a scenario objectively. In that study, medical students who experienced this kind of  rudeness went on to incorrectly diagnose health ailments.

Remote work is causing further incivility, says Larry Martinez, an associate professor of organizational psychology at Portland State University, whose meta-analysis of 70 pre-pandemic studies of 35,344 workers found that rudeness ripples through teams and organizations, causing more destruction than previously thought. “When people think they’re alone, they’re more likely to feel comfortable being snarky or kind of mean,” he says. “Face-to-face communication tends to diffuse situations.” The subtlety is the problem: it’s often hard to prove the behavior (“she replies with two words, or not at all!”), let alone intended harm, and so the vitriol grows, with no resolution.

The million-dollar question is what to do. How do you address an invisible scourge? “A lot of leaders don’t do anything,” says organizational psychologist Cathleen Swody, a partner at Thrive Leadership. This is a costly plan of action. “It erodes bottom-line earnings, performance, productivity, engagement, and especially right now, retention.” People who experience incivility put in less effort and fewer hours, and generally back off to emotionally protect themselves.

Swody suggests addressing it in real time. When you observe one staffer being rude to another, pull them aside to say some version of “Can you tell me what that was about? I want to understand. Here’s how it came across, and here’s how it might be affecting others.”

A hard truth for bosses: your staffers probably are not the problem. If a team is rude, its leader is probably also rude. Swody says that managers commonly confuse rudeness with productivity measures, such as saving time by sending one-line emails or cutting people off in meetings (“I’m going to stop you right there”) or yelling to motivate immediate action. Employees don’t feel comfortable telling bosses that they’re doing this. To them, experts say, that might seem rude.

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