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Be nice at work: Even mildly mean coworkers can ruin things for the whole company

Are you part of a micro-toxic workplace? Researchers tracked the impact of mild slights and found they can have big consequences.

Be nice at work: Even mildly mean coworkers can ruin things for the whole company
[Photo: iStock]
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Did a colleague blow you off? Or ignore you in a meeting? Or say something cutting? That rudeness will affect your work for hours, and not for the better.

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Researchers from a quintet of organizations (Carnegie Mellon University, University of Florida, University of Maryland, Envision Physician Services, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital) collaborated on a quartet of studies tracking the impact of mild slights on both workers and coworkers who observe the rudeness, such as witnessing a doctor yell at an instructor for missing a meeting. They found that in tasks afterward, all are much more likely to “anchor,” which is a psychological phenomenon of fixating on one piece of information (rather than considering all available information). Such fixations can sway decision-making.

“While small insults and other forms of rude behavior might seem relatively harmless compared to more serious forms of aggression, our findings suggest that they can have serious consequences,” says coauthor Binyamin Cooper, a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business. “Our work demonstrates how dangerous these seemingly minor behaviors can be, whether they are experienced directly or even if people just observer incidental rudeness.”

The narrowing of perspective that comes along with anchoring can have deadly consequences in healthcare, where the study shows that physicians exposed to rudeness may incorrectly diagnose patients, and then treat them for ailments that they don’t have. The impact could also be particularly large in tasks like negotiation, legal sentencing, financial forecasting, and pricing.

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The researchers call for managers to reduce rudeness among employees, especially in high-stakes situations where judgment is essential. Two strategies can help avoid anchoring in real-time: information elaboration, where you pause to think what information you need to help someone make a decision, and perspective taking, where you imagine yourself viewing the problem from another person’s point of view.

More research is needed on rudeness and other well-known cognitive biases.