How good at you are responding to rudeness with courtesy and respect? Do you find yourself experiencing disrespect at work? Everyone has both heard of and probably experienced a “toxic culture” at work. Countless hours of consulting have been spent on addressing these complicated ecosystems that undermine motivation and sap productivity. Now recent research points to a subset of this phenomenon that may explain why it’s so hard to take the proverbial high road when we are faced with rudeness or incivility in others. This matters because toxic cultures aren’t spontaneously manifest out of thin air. They evolve out of the aggregation of moments, and corresponding policies and choices that make life at work less empowering and collaborative. So anything that leaders can do to interrupt the drift toward the lowest form of behavior can potentially help to avoid such a negative environment.
Back to how we respond to meanness. The research was done by Christopher Rosen’s team at the University of Arkansas. To understand their findings we need to look at what processes allow us to “turn the other cheek” or maintain courtesy and respect even in the face of disrespect and rudeness. Doing so is not easy or automatic. In fact, it takes discipline and self-control not to reciprocate unkindness. I think I’m safe in assuming that most of us have experienced a moment when our reflex was to lash out and strike back, and instead, we counted to ten or took a deep breath and responded politely. Customer service people are regularly tasked with controlling their impulses in the face of rudeness or disrespect. But doing so takes real training, skill and most of all, willpower. All of those require a finite resource: psychic energy.
In the study, Rosen’s team found that when people are subjected to rudeness or hostility, their performance on impulse control tests fell. In other words, the experience of being treated rudely or disrespectfully actually ate away at a person’s willpower and self-control. Since sticking to the high road is, by definition, an exertion of self-control, rudeness begets rudeness. It’s as though the rudeness itself was viral, and could spread through contagion from one worker to another – by eating away at each individual team member’s ability to control their reactions and maintain civility.
If you are a leader, then this has real implications for both your own behavior and that of your team. After all, if the contagion of rudeness is inevitable then we need to take the right steps from the beginning. Continuing the disease-spreading metaphor just another moment: In order to avoid ever having a “patient 0” who starts the epidemic, we need to be vigilant about the behavior that is allowable between team mates – and perhaps most importantly — manage ourselves so as never to plant the seed of rudeness or disrespect with our own words or actions. Then, in case we fail at completely avoiding instances of hostility in the workplace, we also need to somehow inoculate others to maintain their self-control in the face of the rudeness they encounter from colleagues or clients. That means openly addressing issues of incivility and rudeness and creating practices that combat it and stop its spread.
As always, the place to start with transformation is with ourselves. Rudeness is not isolated in the workplace, and building the strength to combat it with courtesy and respect means fostering the muscle and energy to do so. Every one of us has a finite amount of mental energy and cognitive power. We are not always conscious of the choices we make as to how to spend this precious currency. Yet those “budgetary” choices influence the amount of mental reserve that we have. So husbanding the use of our energy is key to ensuring that we are always able to be energetic and present enough to resist responding to incivility in-kind. That’s a tall order. And as always, it is a choice that we can make from any of several perspectives. One can consider kindness in the face of hostility as a moral choice or a structural choice. If it is moral, than it presumes you value a specific set of guiding principles as moral standards. If, like me, you subscribe to a notion that consistency with principles builds solidity and structural soundness you may do well to view it as a foundational or integrity issue. But whichever way you frame these choices in your thinking, the intended outcome will be similar. By marshaling our personal resources toward the preservation and cultivation of respect – regardless of what we meet in others – we raise the level of performance and sustain a culture that can make work awesome. This goes for life too. When the fatigue of experiencing rudeness undermines our own commitment, then we also lapse as leaders. Resisting that with positive effort pays off enormously in our own experience and that of those we lead.
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