The Contagious Curse: How Rudeness in the Workplace Spreads Like a Flu

I was having coffee with a colleague the other day when she received an incredibly rude text message from a co-worker. She showed me the text, which was completely out of line. Something along the lines of: “Everyone hates you in this company. It’s time you resign.”

A loaded message like that is a tangled mess of emotions and issues, but the aftereffect really struck me. Our once light and laughter-filled morning spiraled quickly into an uncomfortable silence. My friend, usually so open, clammed up, her responses becoming terse and snippy. It was as though the hostility from the text had leaped off the screen and infected her, changing her demeanor entirely.

I wanted to learn more about the impact of rudeness on our psyche, so I did some digging. I found a study that tackled the issue in three stages.

Rudeness Spreads Like Wildfire, Tanking the Mood of the Whole Team

Scientists were curious – could something as simple as rudeness be catching, like a bad cold? It turns out it’s more infectious than they’d ever thought and pretty startling too. It only takes one offhand, rude comment to spark this infectious chain reaction. Think about it like a stack of dominoes – one push, and the whole line starts tumbling. And the kicker? Anyone can be the one to knock over that first piece, shifting the vibe of the entire team.

But how does this rude bug get around? The next couple stages of the research started to untangle this mystery. The findings were mind-blowing. When we’re on the receiving end of rudeness, like my colleague at coffee that morning, our brains kick into overdrive. We start connecting the dots, and it’s a bit like that toppled line of dominoes – one idea triggers the next. This mental gymnastics routine influences how we act, nudging us to toss out a rude comment of our own.

One Episode of Rudeness Sets Off a Chain Reaction, Impacting Team Morale

In the workplace, it can show up in a myriad of ways.

Imagine you’re a manager, and one of your team members, let’s call him John, walks in with a cloud hanging over his head. During a meeting, he snipes at a colleague over a minor issue. This single instance of rudeness might seem inconsequential at first glance, but according to this study, it has far-reaching implications.

John’s rude comment is like a pebble thrown into a pond, creating ripples. It gets inside people’s heads, sparking a network of related negative thoughts. This, in turn, influences their behavior, and they might find themselves being short-tempered or abrupt without understanding why. And so, the ripple spreads, with one person’s rudeness potentially affecting the entire team’s demeanor and interactions.

Why does this matter to you as a manager? Rudeness doesn’t just hurt feelings; it can cultivate a toxic environment, dampening morale and impacting productivity. Understanding how rudeness spreads can equip you to nip it in the bud. Concrete steps include setting and enforcing clear standards for respectful behavior, offering training to develop communication and conflict resolution skills, and leading by example to foster a positive work culture.

Nipping Rudeness in the Bud: Concrete Steps for Managers to Foster a Positive Culture

So, as a manager, you’re likely wondering what you can do to shield your team from this “rudeness flu.” Well, don’t worry – just as you can take steps to prevent the physical flu, you can also safeguard your team’s emotional well-being.

One of the first things you can do is set a strong example. When you lead with kindness and respect, it’s like you’re creating a force field against rudeness. Your team will see your behavior as the norm and be more likely to treat each other similarly.

In addition to leading by example, clear communication about expected behaviors can make a big difference. It’s not just about dictating rules; it’s about creating an open conversation about how everyone wants to be treated. Engaging your team in setting these standards ensures everyone is invested in upholding them. This collective understanding can act as a guiding star, helping your team navigate through challenging interactions.

Offering training and development opportunities is another practical step. Consider bringing in an expert to run workshops on emotional intelligence or conflict resolution. This isn’t just about avoiding rudeness; it’s about empowering your team to communicate effectively and handle stress gracefully. It’s like giving them their own toolkit to ward off the “rudeness flu.”

Another idea might be to encourage activities that build camaraderie. When your team feels connected, they’re more likely to be supportive and understanding of each other, even on those tough days. Organize team lunches, fun outings, or even just casual coffee breaks where everyone can unwind and connect. These bonding moments can serve as the glue that holds your team together, fostering a positive culture where rudeness struggles to take root.

Now, this is important – if you see an instance of rudeness, address it promptly. It’s not about calling someone out in public; it’s about having a private, respectful conversation about the impact of their actions. Ignoring it won’t make it go away; instead, it sends a message that rudeness is acceptable. By addressing it, you can halt the spread and remind your team of the values you’ve all committed to uphold.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the power of recognition. When you see someone handling a difficult situation with grace, or going out of their way to be kind, acknowledge it. It’s not about grand gestures or fancy rewards but simply giving a pat on the back. This not only boosts morale but also reinforces the positive behaviors you want to see in your team.

Cultivating a positive, respectful workplace culture isn’t a one-and-done deal; it’s a continuous process. But by understanding how rudeness spreads and taking active steps to counteract it, you’re already on your way to creating a healthier, more harmonious work environment. So, here’s to leading with empathy and kindness and making the “rudeness flu” a thing of the past!

You know what else research tells us?
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  • Foulk, T., Woolum, A., & Erez, A. (2016). Catching rudeness is like catching a cold: The contagion effects of low-intensity negative behaviors.. The Journal of applied psychology.


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