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.)

About

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.

16 comments
Bizzo
Bizzo

So are most things. I read somewhere ages ago that behaviour like that goes back to 'caveman' times when people were living in close groups. The two 'behaviours' I read about were yawning and vomiting. Have you ever noticed how yawning is contagious? If I remember correctly, yawning basically meant it's time to sleep. So if the yawn catches on in the group, the group realises it's time to sleep so they'll be ready to hunt in the morning. And vomiting. Doesn't seeing someone vomit makes you want to do it yourself? This reflex comes from everyone in the group eating the same food from the same animal/pot. If one person rejects the food, it must be bad for some reason, so the others follow suit to stop them becoming ill. Maybe it's the same as seeing rude/aggressive behaviour? In a closed group, if one person is being aggressive towards another, you expect him to be aggressive towards others, so people will the on the defensive/offensive, and either going quiet and withdrawing from the group, or being aggressive, showing the aggressor "don't mess with me", which is a typical "fight or flight" scenario. Possibly the reason for all of the test subjects to become offensive rather than defensive could be because of the way they were selected, volunteers. These are generally out-going people. People with a more demure character wouldn't volunteer for things like that.

collie21
collie21

It doesn't cost to be nice

blue yoshi
blue yoshi

Having experienced this first hand, it's interesting to note that the higher up the person in the organisation, the more toxic behaviour they can get away with. This then trickles down through the rest of the company, and it becomes very difficult to manage (especially with a "do as I say not as I do" mentality).

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

to any aspect of human behavior. Smiles beget smiles, rudeness begets rudeness. I suppose it's 'nice' that they can to some degree 'prove' it, but 'really', isn't that why our parents taught us 'manners'?

SilverBullet
SilverBullet

responsible nor do they hold themself responsible for what comes from their mouth. The blame can be shared by several sources below. I do not place every U.S. student in my analysis, however the exceptions are few. 1. Society,,, educational systems are soft by nature but today we have reached a new low in discipline and personal conduct in our institutions of higher learning. 2. Culture,,, the "standard" is the pop-culture. Now imbedding itself into the business climate... Tell me you can't see this. 3. Respect,,, not necessarily to their fellow human beings, but to the evolution of the industry and the patriarch's that created and built them. 4. Evil,,, the lack of faith and trust.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

they go about screwing up everyone else's lives for their own financial benefit.

baileyti
baileyti

Attitudes from employees who gripe and complain about workplace issues spill over to other staff as well.

SilverBullet
SilverBullet

The family must have values, those lessons are being lost in our society & culture today.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

likely they have similar issues.... Gagging them is not dealing with them.

jkameleon
jkameleon

The fish always stinks from the head downwards. Employees, as bad as they might be, don't have enough power to poison the entire workplace. Only manager can do that.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You already classified them as toxic, just get rid and prove yourself right. I mean, the guy didn't buy that our people are our greatest assets shtick, at the last round of paycuts and tells his colleagues why? You took credit for his work, gave him a bad review because he whinged about it. You gave them an impossible deadline, chopped him off at the knees every time they tried to address it and then penalised them for not making it. You made a promise you couldn't or wouldn't keep to shut him up for a bit. Need I go on? 99.99999999% of 'toxic' employees are created by poor management decisions. The only reason to keep a toxic employee and turn them around is subconscious guilt from knowing you stiffed them, and the fact that all your other non toxic employees know you have. After all they are toxic, because they are telling people what went on, instead of sensibky keeping silent so they could be done up the back with impunity again. Generally toxic is only rude to the extent of telling an embarassing truth. If you didn't want then to do that, you shouldn't have stiffed them. Regards Toxic Tony :D

santeewelding
santeewelding

Imagine yourself standing in the Oval Office on broken glass and spent casings, looking out over dying fires. You turn, and your first steps forward to say: "Your orders?"

sonia.scott-james
sonia.scott-james

I am waiting for suggestions on how a manager handles the toxic employee and the susequent poison in the workplace. I'm using this blog to assemble ideas of how to handle management situations in the event I become a manager.

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