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The Office Jerk Is Contagious

Didn’t mean to be so rude? Maybe “ego depletion” is to blame

Rude coworkers are the worst. Not only are they unpleasant to be around, but their behavior can lead to poorer work quality, damaged customer relationships and decreased profits. And workplace rudeness isn’t limited to a handful of assholes who don’t know or care how to behave in the office. Rudeness is spreading, and we’re all at risk.

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that the spread of rudeness occurs because experiencing an “incivility” can reduce an employee’s reserve of self-control, thus increasing the likelihood that they will, as Johnson says, “pay the incivility forward.” Examples of incivility include ignoring, speaking sarcastically or condescendingly to, or making a demeaning or derogatory remark about another person. For two work weeks, the researchers checked in with participants three times a day to measure their self-control (via the Stroop test) and to determine if they had been a recipient or an instigator of incivility since the previous check-in. People who had experienced incivility in the past few hours showed lower self-control in the Stroop test.

Unlike sabotage or bullying, which have the clear intent to harm and might result in punishment, rudeness is subtle and can be easily denied. This ambiguity can be mentally draining for the recipient, who has to try to make sense of the encounter. “People have to spend some of their attentional resources and concentration on figuring out, Why did this person act this way toward me? Did I do something? Did it even happen?” says Russell Johnson, one of the study’s authors and an associate professor of management at Michigan State University. The researchers speculate that experiencing rudeness drains the recipient’s self-control. (It is worth noting that this speculation is based on the highly controversial ego depletion theory — the idea, roughly speaking, that self-control is a finite resource that can be used up.)

When their self-control was low, participants were more likely to instigate incivilities against others. In other words, when an employee is mentally drained from another person’s rudeness, they have fewer resources to cope with future frustrations, so they are more likely to be rude to someone else.

This path of tactless transmission is mediated by two factors: workplace politics and the recipient’s worldview. In highly political environments — those in which employees try to bend the rules or game the system for their own benefit — incivilities are more ambiguous and therefore more exhausting. And people with a more abstract perspective on the world — those who focus on the big picture instead of the minutiae of the moment — have greater immunity to rudeness. Employees in cooperative environments who focus on their company’s long-term goals are the least likely to end up “catching” incivility.

It’s important to remember that the mechanisms of contagion proposed here don’t take into account the negative mood, dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion that result from rudeness. And there may be other cognitive processes contributing to its spread. For example, the University of Florida researchers who initially reported that catching rudeness is much like catching a cold suggested that rudeness spreads because the initial experience unconsciously activates a “rudeness network” in the brain so that rude concepts come to mind more easily. So people who have been on the receiving end of rudeness are more likely to interpret future ambiguous situations as uncivil, and to become more hostile as a result.

How can offices stop the cycle? Well, supervisors can work to decrease the perception of high-office politics by clearly rewarding desired behaviors without room for ambiguity, and employees can try to approach their work more abstractly. In particular, Johnson says, supervisors should pay attention to the language they use when assigning work. Rather than emphasizing the details of the tasks that need to be done immediately, they can discuss how the day’s work fits into the company’s long-term goals to help give employees a greater sense of purpose.

And if you don’t think your workplace is likely to get more civil any time soon, well, at least you’ve got someone else to blame the next time you slip up and act like a jerk.