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Rudeness Contagion: Office Jerk is Costly to All

It may sound like a line from the next undiscovered Dr. Seuss book, but this is not a joke. That jerk at work could be costing you more than just your sanity. What exactly could the person be robbing you of? Money. That's right, cold hard cash. How? Through a process called rudeness contagion. More than a decade ago, researchers in the field of management proposed a phenomenon called the spiral theory of incivility, which suggests that when someone is treated disrespectfully that person will respond by being rude back, which then generates a self-perpetuating cycle of disrespectful behavior. For anyone who has ever driven on a public road, this is not hard to believe. In fact, depending on where you live, responding rudely to any driving offense may be putting it mildly. Recently, however, this theory was put to the test in a study conducted by researchers from the University of Florida. In the context of a negotiation scenario, they found evidence, not only for the spiral theory of incivility, but also for a far more disturbing process called "rudeness contagion." Specifically, their study showed that when people are treated rudely, not only are they more likely to communicate aggressively back toward their adversary but they are also much more likely to be rude to an innocent third-party as well. This means that rudeness has the potential to be transferred from one person to another and spread throughout an environment like the common cold. Impact on Third Parties Using rudeness contagion as my platform, I designed a study to test whether being treated rudely would also affect the way a person rated someone else's performance. The results of a series of laboratory experiments showed that people who experienced incivility were much more critical of an innocent third-party's performance. Participants who were told their group was not properly following assignment instructions, a fairly mild insult by most standards, gave objective ratings of a speech that were 20 percent lower compared with participants who were not insulted. Interestingly, this effect held true for people who were treated rudely in-person as well as for those who were sent a rude email. Outside Influences How does this cost you money? Promotions, raises, and bonuses are usually based on some type of evaluation of performance. What if, just prior to completing your annual performance review, the office jerk whined his daily whine or complained his daily complaints? Research shows that if your boss was exposed to this uncivil behavior, it is likely that his evaluations of you were lower than what they would have been otherwise. That could mean money straight out of your pocket! What can employees and managers do to help overcome this issue? Be cognizant that outside influences affect your ability to evaluate someone or something. This is not limited only to annual performance reviews, but it could also include interviews, selecting between contractors, or evaluating proposals. Also, keeping your boss away from the jerk at work around annual review time is never a bad idea.

Kim McCarthy is an Adjunct Professor of Management at California State University San Marcos. She has a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from UC Irvine where she conducted her dissertation research on rudeness and incivility.

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