New research: Being rude at work can devastate your team | Ladders

One snide remark or haughty sniff can not only ruin your day, but the rest of your team's and client's days too. Being rude at work may feel good in the moment, but in the long-run, it never pays off.
Science of Work

New research: Being rude at work can devastate your team

One snide remark or haughty sniff can not only ruin your day, but the rest of your team’s and client’s days too. That’s according to multiple studies on workplace incivility that all come to the same conclusion — being rude at work may feel good in the moment, but in the long-run, it never pays off.

Study: Rudeness has ‘devastating effects’ on patients

Being rude has far-reaching adverse effects beyond the tight circle of the person being rude and recipient of the snark. A 2015 study on doctor-patient interactions found that people being rude at work had “profound, if not devastating, effects on patient care.” To test this, the study got 24 teams of doctors and nurses who work in neonatal intensive care units in Israeli hospitals to undergo a simulated patient interaction.

But first, half of them would be subjected to a rude interloper. Before the NICU teams would be asked to make a medical diagnosis, half of the teams faced an American expert making rude remarks unrelated to their team performance. This expert told half of them that they “wouldn’t last a week” in his department and that he was “not impressed with the quality of medicine in Israel.”

Ouch. These remarks were designed to sting, but it’s surprising how deeply these remarks got under these medical professionals’ skin.

The doctors and nurses who heard these mildly rude statements were more likely to make serious mistakes that would result in the wrong diagnosis. The researchers believe that this is because rudeness interferes with our memories, where goal-planning and management occurs. But critically, rudeness also reduces team collaboration, which could make up for these memory deficiencies. The medical teams who heard rude statements had “reduced information-sharing among the physician and the two nurses, which, in turn, harmed their diagnostic performance.”

So even mildly rude words can wreck a team’s performance — and, disturbingly, cause harm to innocent bystanders caught up in the workplace incivility.

Rudeness makes us feel isolated and embarrassed

Why do rude words leave such lasting harm? Because how other people think of us shapes who we think we are.

A 2017 study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that even when the rudeness is coming from a single perpetrator, it can severely impact our sense of job security and belonging in the workplace. This study found that people who experience workplace incivility reported feeling like their jobs were threatened and that they were alone. These feelings even resulted in bodily symptoms of stress like stomachaches and headaches for the victims of workplace incivility. When rudeness comes from someone in a position of power like your boss, the effects on participants’ psyche were even worse.

When someone is rude to you at work, especially when it comes from your boss, it throws you off your game, and you begin to question your judgment and your place.

As the study put it, we feel threatened by rudeness because we recognize that our value at work is conditional upon our relationships in the workplace:

“Ones value to the group is not guaranteed; people scan and interpret signals from the environment to validate that they are and continue to be accepted,” the study says. “Experiencing incivility in the workplace may threaten ones sense of value to the organization, particularly because the intent behind incivility is often unclear.”

Monica Torres

Monica Torres

is a reporter for Ladders. She is based in New York City and can be reached at mtorres@theladders.com.