When and why does rudeness sometimes spread round the office?

Casual business partners having an argumentBy Alex Fradera

Incivility is the mucus of the workplace. Cruel remarks, condescension and cutting people out of conversations are sufficiently low-level acts that they are rarely sanctioned formally, yet acts of rudeness still spread around an organisation “like catching a cold“, clogging up the smooth running of an organisation. But why does the sneezing start in the first place? A new article in the Journal of Applied Psychology argues that just as colds erupt when our immune system is low, so rudeness manifests when our ability to regulate our thoughts and behaviours is running thin.

A team led by Christopher Rosen from the University of Arkansas asked 70 employees, the majority female, to answer a few questions about their co-workers, and then to complete three surveys each day (morning, lunch and at the end of the afternoon) for ten days, about whether they had been rude to a co-worker since the last survey point and whether anyone had been rude to them.

At the same time as they completed each survey, Rosen also asked participants to complete the classic Stroop test of self-control – participants have to identify rapidly the ink colour of colour-denoting words (such as the word “red” written in blue ink). It takes control and concentration to recognise the ink colour and suppress the meaning of the word.

The researchers reasoned that when participants are struggling to control themselves on the Stroop test, they may also struggle to maintain courtesy towards others, and give in to the temptation to snap at and ignore them. This was borne out: lower Stroop performance was associated with a greater likelihood of acting uncivil over the following time period.

The researchers also tried to understand why rudeness elicits further rudeness, drawing on the same self-control concept. They predicted that experiencing an uncivil event would sap self-control, because it makes sudden demands on us: we have to suppress ruffled emotions, make the call as to whether to get into it with the rude person or just brush it off, and ruminate on whether the rudeness is a signifier of a wider issue or was simply irrelevant. That these thoughts and decisions have a general cost is a prediction from “ego depletion theory”, the idea that self-control is a limited resource.

Rosen’s team failed to find an effect of experiencing rudeness on Stroop performance when looking at the entire sample. But focusing on just those participants who’d earlier answered that their co-workers “do what is best for them, not what is best for the organisation” (a sign of a dog-eat-dog working environment), there was an adverse effect of experiencing rudeness on Stroop performance.

Pulling these findings together, the researchers argue that one way that rudeness perpetuates itself is by how it saps resources, the very ones that are crucial for maintaining courtesy and avoiding handling others in a shabby fashion later in the day.

What’s interesting about this is that the fundamental research undergoing the ego depletion theory has recently come under serious question. This doesn’t invalidate the immediate findings, but it does encourage a closer look at the meaning behind them. Can fluctuation in Stroop performance only reflect a depleting control resource, or could rudeness impair performance through distraction, or by blocking motivation? Whatever the precise action is, the research helps show why rudeness is self-perpetuating. Especially in competitive environments, it impairs our self control and makes it more likely that the better angels of our own nature will abandon us.

Who Strikes Back? A Daily Investigation of When and Why Incivility Begets Incivility

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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