Yawning, laughing, and even vomiting are contagious — I feel a lump in my throat just writing that sentence. But a new study suggests there’s another kind of behavior we should be wary of catching: rudeness.
Incivility at work — including sarcasm, put-downs, and other rude behaviors — begets more incivility, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology. The authors suggest such “incivility spirals” are caused by diminishing amounts of self-control during the day.
“We all have a finite amount of resources available for controlling our behaviors at work, and this study suggests when you experience incivility from others, it draws down those resources and you’re unable to inhibit your own actions going forward,” says study coauthor Christopher Rosen, a professor of management at the University of Arkansas.
In other words, it’s hard not to snap at a co-worker when you’ve already used up your energy dealing with someone snapping at you.
Previous studies suggest rude behaviors in the workplace have doubled over the last two decades. The cause of the rise is not clear, but researchers suggest it may be due to fewer face-to-face interactions or information overload.
Rosen and coauthors enrolled 70 office employees in an experiment to explore the notion of incivility spirals. Each participant filled out a survey three times a day for 10 straight business days. The survey asked about the recent behavior of co-workers and themselves. Participants also completed performance tasks measuring their degree of self-control, based on classical psychological experiments.
The team found that when a person had experienced incivility from a colleague, they were more likely to act in an uncivil manner later in the day. That person also took longer to complete the performance tasks, suggesting that he or she had reduced self-control as a result of being on the receiving end of rude behavior.
Contagious rudeness was amplified in overtly “political” workplaces, says Rosen — offices where employees jockey for power or engage in self-serving activities. This may be because in such competitive environments, employees are using up their self-control resources faster by trying to decipher colleagues’ intentions or figuring out how to succeed, he suggests.
Other situations may likewise increase rude behavior in an office. “Things like workload, the competitiveness of an industry, whether they have enough time to do their work, mental fatigue — all these factors might further amplify this effect,” says Rosen.
There may be simple solutions. Psychological research suggests that people who are able to see the bigger picture — looking past immediate irritations — are better able to override their impulses. Because of that, mindfulness or meditation could play a role in preventing incivility spirals. And offering employees short breaks on days when they are under stress or suffering from heavy workloads could make a difference. Perhaps most directly, managers can give clear, regular feedback about what behaviors are expected in the workplace, says Rosen. “Feedback on an individual basis can really shape an environment.”