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Rudeness in the Workplace Can Spread Like Wildfire


Wildfire is an uncontrolled fire in an area of combustible vegetation that occurs in the countryside area.  Wildfires differ from other fires by its size, the speed at which it can spread from its original source, its potential to change direction unexpectedly and its ability to jump gaps such as roads, rivers and fire breaks. 

It turns out that rudeness functions very much like wildfire.  Three psychologists at Lund University in Sweden surveyed nearly 6,000 people regarding social climate in the workplace.  What they found may surprise you.  Rudeness was a major factor for dissatisfaction at work and more importantly, they found that rudeness spreads quickly if nothing is done about it. 

For this experiment, rudeness meant behavior that was under the radar for something that was prohibitive in a way that violates the norm for mutual respect.  It could have represented petty behavior such as excluding somebody from an email, not sharing particular information with someone or forgetting to invite someone to an event. 

Similar aspects of rude behavior are taking credit for other people’s work, gossiping, spreading rumors, lacking recognition of your employees and sending malicious emails.  The goal was to measure behavior that was not covered through legislation, but has an impact on the workplace and if left untouched and unaddressed, could lead to things such as bullying. 

Eva Torkelson, who was leading the project, observed that bullying in the workplace is well documented, but rudeness that typically turns into bullying is not.  One of the most interesting findings from the study is that it demonstrated that the most common cause of acting rudely was the imitation of other colleagues.  Another finding was that 75% of people that participated in this research and survey stated that they had been subjected to rude behavior at least one or two times in the past year.  So, we are finding that rudeness is fairly common and that one of the causes of rudeness is imitating your coworkers.  

One of the more important findings of the study is that those who behave rudely in the workplace typically experience strong social support and that strong social support can make them less afraid of negative reactions that might occur from their managers and colleagues, so says Martin Backstrom, a Professor of Psychology. 

As rude behavior is provided stronger social support and people tend to imitate it, it can become a vicious circle creating a lack of engagement, satisfaction in the workplace, a lack of productivity, conflict, and even mental health issues with your employees. 

So, what can you do about this?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Be clear on your values.

  • Not only define values for your organization, but make sure you are upholding them.

  • How often do you talk about those values? It needs to be regularly.

  • Do you revisit those values? Training and meetings should incorporate your values.

  •  Do you discuss how we can do better with those values and exhibiting those values in the workplace? Quick two-way discussions can help create calls to action and make sure your values stay front and center.

  • Provide training to your employees on etiquette and understanding the differences between generations.  Each generation typically defines etiquette differently than other generations.

  • Help your employees know how conflict works and how to work through conflict in a productive way.

  • Make people aware of when they are acting in a rude manner.  Usually people don’t realize it or are aware of it, and even if they recognize their own behavior in many cases they find ways to rationalize it.

Holding a mirror in front of another individual and sharing that feedback is one helpful way to open their eyes, make them aware and not allow them to create excuses or rationalize their behavior.  Above all, hold people accountable.  Hold them accountable for your values, for good behavior, being a great team member, a professional and a healthy adult. Otherwise, you run the risk of the potential for rudeness spreading throughout your organization rather rapidly, like a wildfire.

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