Rudeness Reduces Productivity, Thinking, Creativity, Flexibility and Helpfulness

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?


PORATH, C. L., & EREZ, A. (2007). DOES RUDENESS REALLY MATTER? THE EFFECTS OF RUDENESS ON TASK PERFORMANCE AND HELPFULNESS. Academy of Management Journal, 50(5), 1181–1197. doi:10.2307/20159919

2 replies »

  1. There may not be much research on the subject as it is one of the most common defects in the human psyche. From the time a child learns that words have an effect on others the game of manipulation through word-power is underway.
    If you want someone to foul up simply find what button to push through rudeness and you’ve got a winner. It is used in politics, the courts, sports, schools, and even in the desk jockey world from mail clerk up to CEO.
    An over simplified example was shown in the most recent Star Trek movie (I know you saw it) where Kirk had to force Spock into realizing that he was emotionally compromised over the death of his mother. Kirk used rudeness to accomplish that. Not reality, though the application of the technique is common.
    If you have an opponent and you want to throw them off their peak performance just insult them. In other words give them something to think about that is connected to their ego. Protecting the ego is a waste of energy, time and effort because the task at hand suffers.
    A short story I once heard illustrates that this concept has been understood for a very long time. “A Chinese warlord was attack by an assassin and mortally wounded. On his deathbed he charged one of his loyal soldiers to hunt down the assassin and revenge his death. The soldier hunted for years and finally came face to face with the assassin. As the soldier was ready to strike the killing blow the assassin spat on him (a very great insult). The soldier put away his weapon and left the assassin alive. His reasoning was that if he killed the assassin after being insulted he would be doing so out of anger. He could not complete his mission as he would not kill out of anger.”
    Research not really necessary. Human nature is what it is. Possible assistance, “What you think of me is none of my business!”. Does help, sometime.

  2. Rudeness is not Good for Productivity in anything. Whether we are discussing companies, organizations, families, communities or even sporting teams being inappropriate and the repetition of this attitude prevents advancement.

    There must be a culture shift in attitude, language and practice. How this happens is as much a debate as anything? Being nice, polite and kind cannot be absent from the discussion. Yet they are simple words but sometime simple context is better than complicated terms.

    I practice being increasingly appropriate when faced with rudeness. Honestly, this has taken time and a lot of practice. Until, we can realize that productivity is directly connected to attitude/interaction counter rudeness with politeness.


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