We’ve all experienced rudeness at work; at the time it’s offensive and can harm our creativity, but it bears even darker fruits in the long-term, as repeated exposure is associated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress.
How do people deal with rudeness? When is it buried away, and when addressed? A new study suggests that we actually tend to ignore it most of the time. However more offensive acts may set us off – unless we are particularly emotionally sensitive, in which case, the greater the rudeness, the more likely we are to bury our heads in the sand.
Maquarie University’s Larissa Beattie and Barbara Griffin asked 92 customer service and admin employees at a security company to keep a diary of their experiences and responses to workplace incivility, on eight days spread over four weeks.
People of all personality types mostly (80 per cent of the time) just ignored instances of mild rudeness at work. But when rudeness was more serious, personality made a difference. In these situations, emotionally stable people became more likely to respond in some way (either by retaliating, seeking support or even forgiving the perpetrator), whereas high scorers in neuroticism were even more likely to keep their head down and ignore the incident.
The reasons for this difference aren’t clear from the research. This isn’t about neurotic people being scared to react to bullying from authority figures, as the status of the aggressor was not related to this effect. However, people with high trait neuroticism tend to avoid highly arousing negative situations in general, so it makes sense that they should want to avoid confrontations at work.
In this study, each individual showed a wide repertoire of responses to incivility – sometimes ignoring, sometimes reacting in kind, and in some instances taking it out on others. Context clearly matters, with temperament leaning us in different directions. Unfortunately, the study doesn’t give us an understanding of which responses lead to better outcomes; ignoring may be a healthy reaction in many cases, but we also know that sometimes outbursts of anger are needed to draw attention to workplace injustices. It’s in this context that the reaction of people with high trait neuroticism is concerning, as these more serious events may be precisely the ones that call for a reaction.
Also bear in mind the study looked at a range of roles, but only from a single organisation; it would be useful to explore this issue elsewhere to see how it generalises outside of a certain corporate culture. Given the impact that negative interactions have on job satisfaction and turnover, it’s important that we understand the reasons why some people suffer in silence.
Beattie, L., & Griffin, B. (2014). Accounting for within-person differences in how people respond to daily incivility at work Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 87 (3), 625-644 DOI: 10.1111/joop.12067