A Little Rudeness Has Big Impacts On Corporate Culture

rudenessRudeness or uncivility in the boardroom undermines the effectiveness of many boards. Those who are on the receiving end of rudeness or even just witness rudeness tend to normalize the behavior and see the world through “rude-color glasses” imposing significant costs on organizations, according to a study from the University of North Carolina.

Rudeness from authority figures is a huge problem because it signals to everyone lower in the chain of command that workplace incivility is acceptable. The UNC study, published by the Journal of Applied Psychology, adds to a growing body of research showing the economic pain caused by workplace rudeness. Research has demonstrated that worker disengagement flows predictably from personal experiences of workplace rudeness, resulting in loss of revenue, time delays, and turnover.

Half of all workers report they experience rude exchanges in the workplace at least weekly. The study defines rudeness as low-intensity deviant behavior with ambiguous intent to harm.

When rudeness is tolerated or unchallenged, it is easy for corporate cultures to normalize incivility. It’s a mistake for leaders to tolerate rudeness because, left unchecked, it’s as contagious as the flu. Workplace rudeness has long-lasting impacts far beyond the individuals directly implicated. The secondhand effects of rudeness are often more destructive than the original acts because they extend to every employee in the organization.

“Rudeness in the boardroom or elsewhere in the organization primes dysfunctional outcomes such as inappropriate aggression and a hostile workplace.”

When rudeness is normalized, every employee is on alert to being on the receiving end of incivility. The anticipation of being targeted by rude colleagues exacts a measurable toll on the ability to perform complex tasks requiring creativity, flexibility, and memory recall, according to another study by the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Verbal abuse affects more than just those who experience it directly; it can harm innocent bystanders, suggests the authors in their study published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Rudeness in the boardroom or elsewhere in the organization primes dysfunctional outcomes such as inappropriate aggression and a hostile workplace. Behaviors that lead to #MeToo moments often begin with unchallenged workplace rudeness. Employee engagement and teamwork suffer as colleagues intentionally avoid perpetrators, file grievances, quit, and generally spend less time working productively.

Rudeness can quickly hijack boardroom effectiveness. Here’s a three-step process for challenging rudeness in the boardroom and elsewhere.

  1. Model Decency. The contradiction to rudeness starts and ends with you and how you model interpersonal behaviors such as empathy, humility, patience, professionalism, and self-discipline.
  2. Call It When You See It. It’s tempting to ignore rudeness from fellow directors, but ignoring it just makes it worse. If you witness incivility or are made aware of it, you need to challenge it immediately and insist there is no place for such behavior in the workplace. Then it’s time to talk to the offender personally, preferably in private, and without beating around the bush. Stick to the behavior and its consequences. The point is not to shame the offender, but to explain the negative impacts on the team that flow from rudeness. The offender will often try to minimize or offer what to him or her seems like justifications. You may listen empathically but must reject rationalizations. The message communicated without rudeness is that the rude behavior must stop.
  3. Get a Commitment and Follow Up. Rudeness is a learned habit and it takes effort to substitute new behaviors. Formalize the intervention. Get a commitment from the offender that he or she will honor standards of civility at work. Communicate clearly that there will be consequences for violations of the standards. Set targets, if appropriate. Put the agreement in writing. Ensure that violations have consequences. Accountability is the key.