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Your boss’s rude behavior is spreading like wildfire

According to science, impolite gestures and remarks can spill over to a whole team.

Your boss’s rude behavior is spreading like wildfire
[Source image: Rawpixel]

You’ve experienced it before: the shocking rudeness of the person who cuts you off in traffic or the lack of courtesy when someone tries to slide past you in line at the store. But rudeness is even worse when it happens at work. After all, you have enough stress based on just getting your work done—you don’t need a lack of civility on top of it.

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Rudeness at work has a big effect on your experience overall—affecting your attitude, your motivation, and your engagement. Whether it’s a sarcastic comment, a negative barb in a meeting, or having someone interrupt you in a presentation, any of these can be not just annoying, but also undermining.

Rudeness is increasing

Workplace rudeness is apparently on the rise—and perhaps worse yet, it is contagious. Research by the University of Arkansas found workplace incivility has doubled in recent years. In addition, according to the study, when you experience rudeness at work, you’re more likely to feel mental fatigue; and this lowers your self-control, making you more likely to lash out against others. A study by the University of Florida found a similar phenomenon: When you experience rudeness, you may be primed to look for it—and perceive it more frequently around you—and also be more likely to dole it out yourself.

In addition to degrading your experience at work, rudeness can also have negative effects when you get home. In particular, a study published in “Occupational Health Science,” found when incivility happens at work, it can interrupt a good night of shut-eye not only for you, but also for your partner. This has a snowball effect since proper sleep is in turn important to your cognitive, emotional, and physical health.

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So if rudeness has such negative effects on workplace cultures, personal experiences, and social norms, how can you cope—and how can you influence a more positive environment?

Assume good intentions

Give people space. One of the first things you can do to assuage rudeness at work is to give people space to be less than their best. We’ve all been through a lot, and according to a study by Asana, levels of stress, anxiety, burnout, and depression are especially high. When people are struggling with their own challenges, they may not treat you ideally. But to respond in kind will only escalate the situation—and it may be better for you and them if you forgive small infractions.

Assume the best. In addition, people aren’t always good at expressing themselves. While we want those around us to communicate effectively, everyone has bad days now and then. It’s tremendously helpful to relationships when you assume people have good intentions and aren’t trying to be difficult or damaging.

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Challenge your conclusions

It’s not about you. One of the barriers to great relationships is being too focused on yourself. When you get the brush off or when someone seems to discount your ideas, you may conclude it’s about you—but it may just be the person is having a bad day or is facing their own issues. If someone fails to invite you to a meeting, it may not be that they’re disrespecting your role, but rather they’re just overwhelmed with the meeting logistics. When you don’t assume everything is about you, you can remind yourself people are acting out of their own perspectives. Taking yourself out of the equation goes a long way toward your patience with others and the quality of the relationship.

Get out of your head. Another barrier to dealing positively with colleagues is the conclusions you draw about your experiences. It’s better for you and for the relationship if you challenge your own thinking. When someone interrupts you in a meeting, you could conclude they’re trying to make you look bad in front of your boss, when really they’re overly enthusiastic about making their point. Or when someone gives you critical feedback on your report, you may conclude they’re trying to delay your deadline, when really they care about the quality of the outcome.

Bring things to the surface

Reduce back-channeling. According to research at Michigan State University, incivility may get worse as people are working more virtually because they may be more likely to text in a side conversation or have a back channel during a meeting without accountability for how they’re treating others. In these cases, it may be helpful to request everyone to turn their cameras on, so everyone is more present together and less likely to multitask and message behind the scenes.

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Address things head on. In addition, when you can talk about things openly at work, it contributes to productive cultures. If you have concerns about the way you’re treated, or feel someone is demonstrating rudeness continually, you can address it by letting them know what they’re doing and how it’s affecting you. Share your feedback and your reactions, and let them know you want to have a productive relationship—and how you’d like their behavior to change. And of course, if things get out of hand, you’ll want to get help from leadership or your HR resource.

Pave the way

Demonstrate care and respect. Perhaps the biggest thing you can do to curb workplace rudeness is to demonstrate your own empathy, concern, and respect for others. As the world has become more divided, it’s easy to feel separated and conflicted when broaching relationship dynamics. But when you can take the high road with colleagues, and separate people from issues, you will make a positive impact.

Be a positive influence. Sociologically, the most important way we learn is through watching, listening to, and experiencing the behavior of those around us. Based on this, you have more influence than you think. The way you show up affects others even if they’re not thinking consciously about it—and the choices you make can create positive experiences for others, and for you.

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Yes, workplace rudeness may be on the rise, but it’s possible to curb the trend. And it will be critical that we do. Work encompasses large portions of your time—typically the majority of every day—so it will be important to create the kinds of experiences which are rewarding and nourishing rather than disparaging or demotivating. Our well-being will depend on our ability to make a positive impact.


Tracy Brower is a sociologist focused on work-life happiness and fulfillment. She works at Steelcase and is the author of two books, The Secrets to Happiness at Work and Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work.

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