Last week I posted about the importance of civility in the workplace, which generated some interesting comments. One of which, from Susan Barrett Kelley (who writes a great blog herself, Great Moments) suggested that civility might lead to better organizational support. So in pursuit of that idea, and I admit in pursuit of a bit of procrastination on a paper I’m writing, I did some digging about the link between organizational performance and civility.
The literature shows that more extreme forms of incivility such as sexual harassment and bullying are clearly linked to higher organizational costs and lower performance. There is also substantial evidence to show that individual performance among both targeted individuals and observers is negatively impacted. But for less extreme forms of incivility such as rudeness, there is very little evidence of any impact on performance.
However, I did find one 2007 article that pretty clearly shows that a single incidence of rudeness can have significant impact on cognitive functioning, creativity, flexibility and helpfulness (Porath & Erez). The authors conducted four studies, first with an experimenter in the room who was either neutral or indirectly rude (insulting the students of the university in general). Students were asked to complete two exercises, completion of puzzles to measure cognitive functioning and identifying the number of uses for a brick (to identify creativity and flexibility). During the experiment, the person conducting the experiment dropped a box of pencils. Helping was measured by the number of pencils that the participant picked up to assist the experimenter. The students who had the neutral experimenter completed significantly more anagrams, and had more uses and types of uses for the bricks, signalling more creativity and flexibility, and were more helpful than those who experienced rudeness.
The second study introduced rudeness from a persona apparently unrelated to the experiment, before the student entered the experiment room. Half the students received a neutral comment, while the remaining half received a rude comment. Again, when students went on to complete the experiment, results showed a decrease in cognitive function, creativity, flexibility and helpfulness relative to the neutral group.
The final study asked the students to read a brief description of either rudeness or neutral behaviour. They were then asked to write a brief essay expanding the situation, imagining that it had happened to them personally. They then completed a number of tests. The students who imagined rudeness showed a decrease in cognitive function, creativity, flexibility and helpfulness.
Researchers found that a negative mood or the need for revenge did not explain these drops in performance. They also found that women and men behaved essentially the same way.
This study suggests that our performance may be influenced by a single episode of rudeness, even if only imagined. The researchers believe that the rudeness puts an increased load on the functioning of the brain. In other words, if you are thinking about the rudeness you have just experienced, you have a smaller share of your brain focused on the task at hand, reducing your productivity. Rudeness has been shown to distract people with worry, consider changing jobs and reduce the amount of effort they put forth in their current job.
Now think about the impact of an organizational culture that is rude, where employees encounter rudeness repeatedly. While on the surface it might appear that we can brush off these small, inconsequential rude behaviours, apparently they impact us unconsciously. If we are less productive, creative, flexible and helpful when we experience rudeness, and we experience it all of the time, how much is it costing our organizations?