Be Kind. The Simple Answer to the Costly Epidemic of Workplace Rudeness

Be kind.

According to my children’s head teacher, these two words cover everything he requires of pupil behaviour.

That’s all well and good you might be thinking, but is it really relevant to our understanding of the complexities of adult workplace behaviour and performance?  Most definitely it is.  It turns out that this head teacher is wise beyond his institution and that being kind is far more than an easy standard for school children to understand.

In fact, years of research shows that being rude to our colleagues has immediate and long term detrimental effects on employee engagement, commitment and performance, quite apart from its negative impact on workplace relationships and job and life satisfaction.

An article in HBR’s online magazine summarises two American academics’ long term findings on the impact of rudeness at work.  Here are a few “highlights” of Christine Porath’s and Christine Pearson’s work.

  • Half of people surveyed in 2011 said they were on the receiving end of rudeness at least once a week.  This is twice as many people as said this in 1998.
  • Large numbers of us decrease our effort, our time at work and the quality of our performance as a result of being on the receiving end of rudeness at work (48%, 47% and 38% respectively of those experiencing incivility).
  • 12% of people who experience rudeness at work say they have left a job because of it.

 Rudeness filters through to customers – who walk away

Rudeness within a workforce has an impact on customers too.  Pearson and Porath’s surveys and experimental research with other colleagues indicates that:

  • 25% of people who experience rudeness at work say that they have taken their frustration out on customers
  • customers witnessing rudeness amongst employees are significantly less likely to want to use the company’s service in the future and most will generalize their feelings about the rudeness they witness to all employees of that organisation.

Add to this the costs of managing incidents of incivility and the negative impact on creativity, accuracy, performance and willingness to help others revealed by a number of researchers in the field, and I think we can all agree that rudeness at work is officially a Really Bad Thing.

How to encourage a good-mannered workplace

So what to do to turn back the rising tide of workplace incivility and unkindness?  How can customer service organisation encourage and increase the sum total of  courtesy and positive interactions in order to improve the experience of both workers and customers?

We all know that rudeness makes us feel bad and ignoring its power to affect our work is a case of putting our heads in the sand.   However, the good news is that evidence suggests it is easy to create a virtuous circle of niceness and positive feeling.  Work by Kim and Yoon in the service sector suggests that positive behavior initiated by employees towards customers leads to more positive behaviour in return and a positive mood in the employee as a result.

The neuro-economist Paul J Zak believes that civility is part of what he terms the Golden Rule – ie, you be nice to me and I will be nice to you  – and is rooted in our body chemistry.  Studies show that when someone is nice to us our brains release the hormone oxytocin which not only makes us feel good but leads us to be nicer to others.

Conversely, it is easy to see how vicious circles of rudeness bad feeling and unkindness can also be created.

So we should acknowledge the power of courtesy and kindness at work and make it an explicit value for the department or organisation.  Amongst other thing, Porath and Pearson suggest making sure that leaders understand the impact their own behaviour has on others behaviour and that they role model positive, courteous and appreciative behavior towards their staff.    This will start the virtuous circle of civility and the ripple effect will pass this on right down the line to customers and even further.

 Another suggestion by researchers in the field is to make civility an explicit part of the recruitment process which embeds courtesy and kindness into the psychological contract.   And at a more local level, department or team leaders can discuss and agree with their staff what behaviour is expected and what is unacceptable, along with possible rewards or sanctions down the line.

 Making a difference

Rudeness is often regarded as something that we just have to put up with from time to time and consistently rude people often get away with this type of corrosive behaviour without direct challenge.  Yet we now know that it has a huge impact on both employee and customer experience and ultimately on the performance and bottom line of the organisation.

 So I see my children’s head teacher’s emphasis on being kind as a lesson for grown ups too.  It really is worth making the effort to treat others with kindness because if every one of us is just a little bit more civil and little more kind, the virtuous circle and ripple effect will ensure that it takes on a life of its own.  And who knows, it might well make its way back round to you.

Good luck.  And if it helps to get the ball rolling even just a little, I want to say that I really do appreciate you reading this blog today: thank you 🙂

References and further information

Porath, C., & Erez, A. (2009). Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109 (1), 29-44

Porath and Pearson, HBR Rudeness article :

Kim E, and Yoon DJ (2012). Why Does Service With a Smile Make Employees Happy? A Social Interaction Model. The Journal of Applied Psychology 97(5) 758 – 775

C. Porath, D. MacInnis, V. S. Folkes. It’s Unfair: Why Customers Who Merely Observe an Uncivil Employee Abandon the CompanyJournal of Service Research, 2011

Flin, R, Rudeness at Work Causes Mistakes BMI British Medical Journal ,2010, July 7

6 Comments to “Be Kind. The Simple Answer to the Costly Epidemic of Workplace Rudeness”

  1. Hi! I am doing a school project on the science behind customer service and was wondering if there was an email address I could contact you at with some questions? Thanks!

  2. Hi Ryan
    Thank you for taking the time to read the blog and get in touch. If you would like to post your questions here I will do my best to help.

    • Thanks for responding!

      Basically I’m doing a 4-month long school project on the science and psychology behind customer service. I’m still working on the details, but I wanted to talk to professionals about what they see that affects customers to make decisions that they do and how customer service is important in the business industry overall. Basically, what have you seen that makes customers happy and loyal to a company and why is that? Are there any psychological triggers involved and is there any easy way to roll that out in a big company with multiple locations and tons of employees?

      You don’t have to answer all that, but any help would be great. Also if you know of any books or sources I could look at more, that would be really helpful too.

      Thanks again! I really appreciate your help with this.

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