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Rude Awakening: Managers Facing an Increase in Debilitating Workplace Incivility

A growing workplace problem can be summed up by a four-letter word: R-U-D-E.

Yes, the increase in incivility that has seemed to infect society in general is rearing its ugly head in the workplace, both remote and in-person. Mind you, we aren’t talking about the attack-the-flight-attendant level of criminal conduct. It’s more the subtle slights and boorish behavior that have real bottom-line consequences, crippling productivity and creativity as well as likely contributing to the Great Resignation.

A new Korn Ferry study shows the pervasiveness and effects of rudeness in the workplace. Of the 690 respondents:

  • 78% find it difficult to focus on work after someone has done something rude,
  • 75% have considered quitting because of an uncivil co-worker or boss,
  • 70% say it’s easier for colleagues working remotely to exhibit rude behavior such as interrupting on calls or not returning emails,
  • 59% say colleagues are ruder than pre-pandemic, and
  • 83% try to avoid colleagues they think are rude.

Those first two numbers are especially troubling to James Bywater, a Korn Ferry associate client partner.

The most pressing issue is how incivility distracts employees’ attention and impairs their decision making, he said. A minor slight can linger with a worker for a long time.

“The data here and in the past suggests that it occupies some key cognitive functions for a significant period of time afterwards,” Bywater said. The offended party ruminates on such questions as “‘Did they mean it?’ ‘Was it my fault?’ ‘What should I do about it?’

“These impact subsequent concentration, focus and collaboration, and I can’t think of a job in the modern economy that does not rely on at least one of these three skills.”

Bywater is not the only expert alarmed by the impact of workplace rudeness: A new meta-analysis of 70 studies of 35,344 workers, led by organizational psychologist Larry Martinez at Portland State University, found that workplace incivility festers and multiplies, ripples through teams and organizations and causes more damage than previously thought.

One particularly disconcerting study in the Journal of Applied Psychologyfound that surgeons who experienced workplace incivility were more likely to misdiagnose health ailments.

Behavioral health scientists concur that living almost two years through a pandemic has not only eroded many people’s social skills but has made most folks more susceptible when they feel they are a victim of uncivil behavior. Some label it a “fight or flight” response.

“We’re going through a time where, physiologically, people’s threat system is at a heightened level,” Bernard Golden, a psychologist and the author of Overcoming Destructive Anger,told Time magazine. “This period of threat has been so long that it may have had a damaging effect on people’s mental health, which for many has then been further debilitated by isolation, loss of resources, the death of loved ones and reduced social support.”

Bywater is also surprised by the three-quarters of respondents who reported rudeness had made them consider leaving a job. “There are plenty of legitimate reasons to leave a role — increased responsibility, better life balance, better pay,” he said. “A culture of incivility from the boss or colleagues is not one of them. It might be the last straw. It can be a pervasive thing — people think about their feelings and the most recent episode. It can get the adrenaline flowing.”

The Great Resignation, which saw 8.7 million Americans quit their jobs in August and September, could be a factor. “People don’t feel trapped in the job right now,” Bywater said.

He contends that incivility from the boss or colleagues is not a good reason to quit because the problem is “fixable.”

Bywater offers a four-point plan for managers and HR professionals to fix the rudeness problem.

1. Adopt strong meeting etiquette, building in time at the start of the meeting for social niceties. Arrange calls to run for 50 minutes, not 60, to reduce Zoom fatigue. The London-based Bywater points out that some workplace cultures — such as in France and Arab countries — emphasize pre- and post-meeting informal dialogue while the United States has more of a “let’s get down to business” mentality. For example, such conversations can allow co-workers a chance to explain statements they made in a meeting and, perhaps, diffuse the potential effects of behavior interpreted as being uncivil.

2. Be alert for giving feedback when it is needed. This requires strong emotional intelligence antennae to listen for subtle as well as obvious incivility. This can be especially challenging in a remote work setting, Bywater admitted, adding that increases the need for frequent check-ins with workers.

3. Set the example of civil behavior. The nuances of leaders’ behavior are scrutinized more carefully than that of workers. Bosses need to be alert and situationally aware of the impact they have on people and events.

4. Develop a strong culture of giving feedback. Feedback is something to be given in the moment, circumstances permitting. Bywater points to Korn Ferry research in the non-corporate world, such as elite athletes. “The elite performers were shocked to learn how long feedback is routinely stored up in the corporate world before being shared. In their minds, feedback is something to be given in the moment. The idea that performance management plans arrange for feedback to be given on an annual, quarterly or even monthly basis is completely alien to them.”

Jordan Goldrich, a business consultant and coach who, as the “Workplace Warrior” specializes in working with abrasive bosses, emphasizes the power of communication with employees.

“From what I am hearing, leaders have been crushed by the Great Resignation,” Goldrich said. “Workers are more aware of the fact that they haven’t been treated well and with respect. They are angry about it.

“I am not sure anything is different than before. We are living in especially volatile, uncertain times. Employees have more power.”

Studies show that like many other societal problems, incivility has been exacerbated by the pandemic. In a pre-pandemic report, McKinsey found that incivility had already doubled in the past two decades.

And, the most effective approach to dealing with incivility hasn’t changed with the pandemic, according to Goldrich.

Often times, management gets into trouble when it fails to ask employee input before making a decision. “If that is going on, you need to change the culture,” said Goldrich, pointing to recent employee backlash at Hearst magazines over management’s mandate to end remote work and return to the New York home office.

“The best way to get higher performance is to have managers care about the individual employee — what motivates them. They need to spend time helping them develop.”

About the Author

 Jim Fickess is a writer and editor at WorldatWork.

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