'Rudeness is contagious': How your attitude could hurt your co-workers

Being rude at work could come back to bite you.


Don’t be rude at work: It could come back to bite you.

That’s the finding in new research that suggests that workplace rudeness is contagious.

The study, published online last month in the Journal of Applied Psychology, likens everyday, low-level rudeness, like making a sly comment or excluding or ignoring a co-worker, to the irksome common cold.

New research that suggests that workplace rudeness is contagious.Shutterstock

“It’s very easy to catch,” the paper’s lead author, Trevor Foulk, told TODAY.com. “Just a single incident, even observing a single incident, can cause you to be more rude.”

Experiencing rudeness makes it more noticeable in your mind and in the world around you, the study found.

“You see it one time and it changes something in your mind and this activation changes the way you interpret the world,” added Foulk, a doctoral student in management at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business Administration. “You’ll interpret your interactions in the world as more rude and then respond to this perceived rudeness as rude.

“It doesn’t just happen and end,” he said. “It happens and spreads.”

Workplace rudeness hurts performance and creativity and makes workers less helpful, Foulk said. While earlier studies have focused on more severe but less common abusive workplace behavior, rudeness is something workers face daily, he said, and he wanted to further study its consequences.

“The average worker might go an entire career and might not ever be abused or aggressed upon, but people experience rudeness all the time,” Foulk said.

For the research, he and researchers conducted three studies on University of Florida students.

The first involved students in a negotiation class. After each negotiating session, they completed online questionnaires that asked about partner rudeness.

The study found that students who rated their partner as rude in a negotiation were themselves rated as rude by their next negotiating partner, suggesting that a victim of rudeness can then become a perpetrator. The rudeness effect was found to last a week.

“It’s essentially saying rudeness is contagious,” Foulk said. “When I experience it, I become rude.”

The second study involved students who saw a neutral interaction between two people or a rude interaction. Afterward, they were shown strings of letters and had to identify which formed words and which were nonsense.

The students who saw the rude interaction found the words associated with rudeness within the letters faster than those who saw the neutral interaction, suggesting that even seeing rudeness means you will notice more rudeness in your environment.

“Witnessing the rude encounter activates the concept of rudeness in the unconscious part of your brain,” Foulk said.

From there, researchers wanted to know if that brain activation influenced behavior.

The third study showed half of the students a video of a rude interaction between two fictional employees and half a neutral interaction. The students also had to respond to a fake customer email that was neutral, very aggressive or rude. And then they had to decide how to split a monetary prize with the customer.

The students who saw the rude interaction and responded to the rude email were the most stingy the customer, also showing that observing rudeness can influence future behavior.

“When you experience rudeness, you will think future interactions are rude and you will be rude as a response,” Foulk said.

Though the research was not conducted in the workplace, he believes the results hold true for workers because “our brains all work roughly the same.”

Maurice Schweitzer, a professor in the operations, information and decisions department at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in workplace behavior, called the research interesting and important.

“It advances our understanding of rude behavior in the workplace by showing us how it can spread,” he said, adding: “One bad apple can really ruin the barrel and this tells us how this happens.”

Companies should pay attention to how employees treat each other and are being treated by outsiders, like customers, he said.

“We want an environment that brings out the best in people, and here are findings that offer a window into how things can go very badly wrong,” Schweitzer said.

The study has potentially far-reaching implications for companies and even social groups and families, said Leigh Thompson, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and a social psychologist.

"It's interesting because a very subtle comment can start to, in some sense, poison a whole organization," she said, adding: "We should all be very mindful of our own behavior.”

But she cautioned against too much politeness in the office.

"On the one hand, we could tell everybody to stay home if they’ve got the rudeness bug,” Thompson said. “But if we create too much of a 'politeness ritual' and no one feels free to speak their mind, then that can stifle creativity and good decision-making."

Foulk hopes the results will lead companies to re-examine their thresholds for acceptable workplace behavior.

“Rudeness is largely tolerated,” he said. “We experience rudeness all the time in organizations because organizations allow it."

Lisa A. Flam, a regular contributor to TODAY.com, is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.