Enterprise Software

Rudeness is contagious

Have you ever heard of secondhand rudeness? A new study defines it and its effect in the workplace.

I spend a lot of time in this blog talking about workplace dynamics. So you can imagine how my interest was piqued when I came across a piece in Working.com that talked about a study done on the effect of rudeness in the workplace.

The study, conducted by Amir Erez, a psychologist at the University of Florida's School of Management, resulted in the coining of a new term: secondhand rudeness. The premise: One toxic employee can poison an entire office with a few angry outbursts and four-letter words. Erez says,

"Managers should be very concerned because the negative consequences of rudeness on the job are not limited to the person who happens to be the victim. If five other people are watching, the effects are going to spill over into the rest of the organization."

For the experiment, Erez gathered volunteers to perform cognitive tests (they were asked to rearrange scrambled letters to form different words) and a creative test (they were asked to think of unusual uses for a brick). He had the supervisor who was administering the test act rudely toward one of the test-takers, who was actually in on the deal.

Not only did the test-takers have trouble completing the tasks (which doesn't surprise me — workplace toxicity is very distracing), but their output became much darker. One of the scrambled words was "demure," but several volunteers rearranged the letters to spell "murder." (That's scary enough until you realize the letters in "demure" can't even be used to spell "murder.") And, according to the study results, the "creative" uses for a brick included throwing it through a window or beating people up.

I didn't see anything in the original piece about how the study was structured in general. That is, if they did a double-blind or where the subjects came from. For example, I think if they'd gathered the test subjects from a facility for the violently insane, the results might not be as meaningful.

But if these were just random students from the university's management program, then I'm afraid, very afraid.

(The study is published in a research journal, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.)


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

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