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Rudeness at work is contagious

Rude behaviour at the office
Rude behaviour in the workspace can be picked up by co-workers and spread across the office like a virus. Photo: Artis Pupins

Workplace incivility should be treated with the utmost seriousness. This is the finding of three psychologists at Lund University in Sweden who surveyed nearly 6 000 people on the social climate in the workplace. Their studies show that being subjected to rudeness is a major reason for dissatisfaction at work and that unpleasant behaviour spreads if nothing is done about it.

Rudeness in this context refers to something that goes under the radar for what is prohibited and that in some way violates the norm for mutual respect. It can refer to petty behaviour such as excluding someone from information and cooperation, or “forgetting” to invite someone to a communal event.  It can also refer to taking credit for the work of others, spreading rumours, sending malicious emails, or not giving praise to subordinates.

“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”, says Eva Torkelson, who is leading the project on rudeness as a social process in organisations, which is financed by FORTE, the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare.

She observes that bullying in the workplace is quite a well-documented phenomenon, whereas rudeness that risks turning into bullying is not.

The research team’s studies show that the most common cause of acting rudely is imitating the behaviour of colleagues.

In total, 75 % of the survey respondents stated that they had been subjected to rudeness at least 1–2 times in the past year.

“An important finding from our studies is that those who behave rudely in the workplace experience stronger social support, which probably makes them less afraid of negative reactions to their behaviour from managers and colleagues”, says Martin Bäckström, Professor of Psychology.

As people often imitate the behaviour of others, there is a risk that rudeness becomes a vicious circle with considerable consequences for the entire workplace. Previous research points to mental illness, reduced job satisfaction, staff members who work less efficiently or seek jobs elsewhere, reduced loyalty and more conflicts.

Meet the research team: Eva Torkelson, Kristioffer Holm och Martin Bäckström. Fotograf: Gunnar Menander
Meet the research team: Eva Torkelson, Kristioffer Holm och Martin Bäckström. Photo: Gunnar Menander

But what can be done to address unpleasant behaviour that is a little unclear and hard to put your finger on?

Eva Torkelson thinks that the solution is training for 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.”

Further information:

The research consists of two separate studies. The first was carried out in the hotel and restaurant sector, and the second is based on data gathered by the Swedish institute for opinion surveys (SIFO) from a sample that reflects the Swedish population.

The first study, Models of Workplace Incivility: The Relationships to Instigated Incivility and Negative Outcomes, was published in BioMed Research International and the second is awaiting publication.

Contact for interviews and questions:

Associate Professor Eva Torkelson eva [dot] torkelson [at] psy [dot] lu [dot] se +46 46-222 91 19
Professor Martin Bäckström martin [dot] backstrom [at] psy [dot] lu [dot] se +46 46-222 01 79
Project Assistant Kristoffer Holm kristoffer [dot] holm [at] psy [dot] lu [dot] se