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The problem with rudeness at work


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

'Mr Rude was a horrible man who didn’t have a nice thing to say to anyone and, not surprisingly, no one liked him.'

'Mr Rude was a horrible man who didn’t have a nice thing to say to anyone and, not surprisingly, no one liked him.'

“Mr Rude is rude.

He is very rude.

There are benefits to rudeness … that is, for those who perpetrate it. 

He is very, very rude.

He is worse than very, very rude.

He is extraordinarily rude.”

The classic Mr Men book by Roger Hargreaves continues with an apt description of the character: “Mr Rude was a horrible man who didn’t have a nice thing to say to anyone and, not surprisingly, no one liked him.”

It is true that Mr (and Mrs) Rude exist not just in children’s books but in workplaces too, causing consternation wherever they go. 

There are benefits to rudeness … that is, for those who perpetrate it. In a study conducted by a trio of American universities last year, it was discovered that rude men earn 18 per cent more than “agreeable” men, while rude women earn 5 per cent more than nice women. 

The study comprised 10,000 workers over a period of 20 years, and it concluded that one explanation for the salary difference is that rude people tend to be more forceful during salary negotiations. The result? They get what they want.

Sure, rudeness might offer an advantage to some people, but it creates a stack of problems for others. Research released in 2011 by Baylor University in Texas found rude people at work create a negative impact not only on their unfortunate colleagues, but also on their colleagues’ partners. Here’s how.

Recipients of rudeness get stressed, and when they go home to their partners all frazzled and emotional, that negativity gets passed on and consequently affects their marital satisfaction. Then, the newly infected partners – the ones who haven’t had any contact with the rude employee – take that contagious negativity back to their own workplace, spreading the insolence further afield. 

In the end, the rude employee in one workplace has imposed somewhat of a butterfly effect, sending ripples of discontent far beyond their own team.

Perhaps a reason for the rudeness is that people confuse it with assertiveness. The latter can be useful. It’s a skill that helps people communicate more articulately, to defend themselves, and to make a greater contribution to workplace discussions. But rudeness, on the other hand, does the opposite.

In an analysis published in the British Medical Journal two years ago, academics demonstrated the ways in which rude employees generate a greater number of mistakes. In one experiment, a manager said to a participant: “What is it with you? You arrive late, you are irresponsible. Look at you; how do you expect to hold down a job in the real world?”

In that example, the rudeness wasn’t really that extreme and the volume with which it was communicated wasn’t loud, and yet it still resulted in a poorer level of performance – even among colleagues who simply observed the incident.

But where do you draw the line between rudeness and discipline? In some cases, the behaviour and incompetence of employees necessitates some kind of authoritative approach from managers, particularly when ongoing amounts of coaching hasn’t resulted in any improvement.

There are countless occasions, especially in the public service, where employees have accused their bosses of bullying just because they were given some negative feedback. It's not really a matter of rudeness – and rarely is it an issue of harassment – and yet managers end up spending copious amounts of time in tribunals and HR meetings, all because they were doing their job.

So how do you deal with a rude colleague? In their book, 201 Ways to Deal With Difficult People, Alan Axelrod and James Holtje suggest it’s a good idea to act as though the rudeness doesn’t affect you. Simply smile, they write. In the Mr Men book, for instance, Mr Happy gets Mr Rude to stop being rude by constantly smiling at him – although I doubt that would work in the real world.

Axelrod and Holtje also issue a warning: “Look in the mirror. Sometimes the rude behaviour of others may be a response to signals you may not even be aware you’re sending.”

Some of those signals include cutting people off mid-sentence, not offering praise, and being impolite.

It’s a good reminder of that old saying: be nice to people on your way up because you might meet them on your way down.

Is rudeness a problem in your workplace? How do you handle it?

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

59 comments so far

  • The answer to another's rudeness is to call them out on the behaviour politely but very firmly. Usually the shock of being confronted is enough to change their tone

    Date and time
    June 29, 2012, 10:15AM
    • Good theory Razor. But what happens when they're all rude and deliberately cultivate rudeness to show off in front of their peers? Confronting these people simply inspires further rudeness.

      Date and time
      June 29, 2012, 2:34PM
    • I find the worst form of rudeness is the passive agressive smugness that has replaced "rudeness" in a lot of workplaces because of HR bullying policies.
      Being direct is unacceptable and is often erroneously perceived as rudeness, while being passive agressive, insincere and disingenuous is acceptable. Unfortunately however it leads to more toxic work cultures than those where people just say what they think and the business tells it like it is not goes on with a whole lot of values viosion nonsense that it doesnt practivce or really believe in.

      Date and time
      June 29, 2012, 3:54PM
    • @Seriously - You hit the nail on the head there! Well said.

      Date and time
      June 29, 2012, 6:10PM
    • Seriously, I wholeheartedly agree with what you said. I would rather work with people who are direct and clearly state what they want.

      Date and time
      June 29, 2012, 6:49PM
  • Rudeness was a problem where I used to work. To deal with it - I did not take it personally - I just overlooked the abuse and I was nice to them - super nice - and when their families came to visit them - I was super nice to them as well. You must win them over, people! It is the only way! Do not snipe back @ them because that is exactly what they want you to do! You do not have to invite them over to your house on the weekend - you just have to tolerate them and their eccentricities. Also, make sure you look around and find something else. I did and I never looked back! I have never been more happy where I am! Where are they? Still back in Rudeville and you have moved on!

    Frances G
    Date and time
    June 29, 2012, 10:56AM
    • there are other ways of handling it than just accepting the rudeness and quietly boiling away until you get fed up and leave. Calling it out is a good approach as often rudeness can be a front for incompetence.The rudeness and bullying will continue to happen to people if the perpetrators know they can get away with it and often these people back away when confronted. You also find other staff tend to respect people who show real leadership and strength in standing up to that in any workplace

      Date and time
      June 29, 2012, 11:26AM
    • Rudeness begets rudeness. If you are truly against rudeness, don't respond in kind. @Brian, responding kindly to rudeness doesn't = accepting it and bottling it in. It would be unhelpful to accept rudeness and bottle your feelings. Instead, respond to rudeness with kindness and thoughtfulness. You'll feel good, you've responded so there is nothing to bottle in, and you've cut the chain of rudeness.

      The person being rude to you is probably just continuing the chain. If you cut the chain, they might cut the chain with whoever is being rude to them.

      For all you geniuses who respond to rudeness in kind, you've just added to the likelihood of that person being rude to other people. Well done! *slow clap*

      Date and time
      June 29, 2012, 12:27PM
  • I'd rather earn 5% less and not be an @sshole!

    Donna Joy
    Date and time
    June 29, 2012, 11:05AM
    • I agree.
      They might have more money but I bet they have less friends and a lonely retirement!

      Date and time
      June 29, 2012, 5:05PM

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