Employees who are treated rudely by co-workers tend to lose self-control and end up treating others in the same uncivil manner, a new study has found.
Condescending comments, put-downs and sarcasm have become commonplace in the politically charged workplace, and the new study shows how this incivility may be spreading.
Russell Johnson, associate professor of management at Michigan State University in the US and colleagues found that experiencing such rude behaviour reduces employees’ self-control and leads them to act in a similar uncivil manner.
“People who are recipients of incivility at work feel mentally fatigued as a result, because uncivil behaviours are somewhat ambiguous and require employees to figure out whether there was any abusive intent,” said Johnson.
“This mental fatigue, in turn, led them to act uncivil towards other workers. In other words, they paid the incivility forward,” he said.
While curt remarks and other forms of incivility do not involve openly hostile behaviour such as bullying and threats, they are a frequent occurrence in the workplace and have a significant effect on employees, the study noted.
For the study, 70 employees filled out a survey relating to incivility and its effects three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays.
The researchers found that “incivility spirals” – when acts of incivility lead to subsequent acts of incivility – can occur unintentionally.
“When employees are mentally fatigued, it is more difficult for them to keep their negative impulses and emotions in check, which leads them to be condescending and rude to colleagues,” Johnson said.
“This happens even for employees who desire to be agreeable and polite; they simply lack the energy to suppress curt and impatient responses,” he said.
The study also found that incivility spirals occurred in workplaces that were perceived as political ie where co-workers “do what is best for them, not what is best for the organisation”.
“Being the victim of incivility leaves employees depleted because they must expend energy to understand why they were targeted and how to respond,” researchers said.
The research was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.