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How Incivility Breeds Incivility

In unhappy workplaces, rudeness rapidly leads to more rudeness.
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(Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

(Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Incivility is pretty much inescapable these days, with everyone from presidential candidates to Olympic athletes behaving in remarkably rude ways. If, as some research suggests, this is an epidemic, how exactly does it spread?

Well, according to newly published research, the answer is: quickly and easily, under the right conditions.

A research team led by Christopher Rosen of University of Arkansas–Fayetteville and Russell Johnson of Michigan State University provides a flow chart of sorts describing how incivility can spread within an organization.

The team found that experiencing an inconsiderate or insulting act can drain an employee’s self-control, making it more likely he or she will act out in a similar way later in the day. Importantly, this cycle of abuse was only found in workplaces perceived as highly political.

“Incivility begets incivility,” the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Psychology. “These contagion effects occur within very short, daily cycles.”

The study featured 70 employees in a variety of organizations (universities, local government, and medical offices), each of whom filled out three surveys — one at mid-morning, another in the early afternoon, and another in the late afternoon — on at least three work days.

All too often, one rude turn creates another.

As part of the morning and first afternoon surveys, participants took a Stroop Test, a common measure of self-control. During each of the afternoon sessions, they were asked whether they had experienced incivility during the previous hours (sample statement: “One of my co-workers has put me down or been condescending to me”), and whether they had acted in similarly uncivil ways to others.

Importantly, they were also asked about their perception of politics in the workplace, responding to such statements as “There’s a lot of self-serving behavior going on.”

The researchers found that, in workplaces viewed as highly political, experiencing rudeness or uncivil behavior lowered employees’ self-control. And “as self-control diminished, employees were more likely to instigate incivility towards others.”

“Being the victim of incivility leaves employees depleted, because they must expend energy to understand why they were targeted and how to respond,” the researchers explain. “Such sense-making is made more complex in highly political environments, in which intentions and motives of others are less clear.”

These results give managers a clear mandate: A transparent working environment, where everyone is seen as working toward a common goal, can break this destructive cycle.

Individual employees can also temper their reactions by thinking about the meaning of what’s happening around them, rather than simply reacting. If you understand that Joe is lashing out because he’s miserable, you’ll be less likely to follow his lead.

How well these findings apply to the political and sports arenas is an open question. But it’s clear that being the victim of incivility takes a toll, and it can easily set off a chain reaction of boorish behavior. All too often, one rude turn creates another.