UF study: Rudeness hurts performance and willingness to help on job

January 24, 2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new study suggests rude bosses defeat their purpose by browbeating employees into poor job performance.

Researchers used real life experimental situations to discover that verbal abuse so flusters people that they lose much of their problem-solving and creative talents.

“When someone is screaming at you, you’re too busy thinking about the incident and how to deal with it to think about much else,” said Amir Erez, a University of Florida professor.

Not only did single episodes of rude treatment have damaging consequences, but simply imagining being on the receiving end of a tirade hampered workers’ ability to perform routine tasks, be innovative and be good team players, Erez said.

“We found that even when the rude behavior is pretty mild, it impairs a person’s cognitive functioning and has spillover effects in how they treat their co-workers,” he said.

The unusual study, by Erez and Christine Porath, a management professor at the , appears in the October issue of the Academy of Management Journal.

The disruption of mental functioning because of someone’s lousy manners is serious business in a world that has transitioned from the brawn of an industrial economy to the mindset of the information age Erez said. The problem is magnified because complaints of incivility in society are on the upswing about everything from inconsiderate cell phone use to road rage, he said.

Reflecting the adage that more bees are caught with honey than vinegar, Erez believes employers would be well advised to buck the rise in incivility. “As more and more jobs within organizations become increasingly complex and require higher levels of cognitive functioning and creativity, anything that interferes with that process is likely to have an impact, not only on individual job performance but on the productivity of the labor force as a whole,” he said.

Other studies have examined self-reports from employees about workplace rudeness. This research, however, actually measured how discourteous treatment impedes worker performance on specific tasks, he said.

The researchers tested three scenarios involving rude behavior on a series of brainstorming tasks, which included solving anagrams and finding creative uses for a brick, on 275 students enrolled in management classes at UF and the University of Southern California.

One set of participants observed a confederate arrive six minutes late to the experiment, apologize and explain that a class across campus was not let out on time. After the confederate was dismissed for being too late, the experimenter unleashed a barrage of criticism about students being unprofessional compared with those at other universities. A control group saw only a confederate being dismissed for being too late.

A second set of participants arrived at the scheduled test site where a small, easy-to-miss sign was posted on a door that was ajar to a room where a person seated at a desk greeted them by saying “Can’t you read? There is a sign on the door that tells you the experiment will be in (another room). But you didn’t even bother to look at the door, did you? Instead, you preferred to disturb me and ask for directions when you can clearly see that I am busy. I am not a secretary here, I am a busy professor.” Members of a control group were simply told that the room had been changed and given directions to the new location.

In a third scenario, participants merely imagined themselves in one of these two situations where rudeness was encountered.

Compared to the control group, the students who were treated rudely, or even imagined they had been, solved fewer anagrams, recalled less information and found fewer and less creative uses for a brick. They might suggest it be “used as a door stop,” for example, instead of “selling it on e-Bay” or “hanging it from a wall in the museum and calling it abstract art.”

The study also tested participants’ willingness to help by having the experimenter drop some books or pencils. Whether the rude behavior was directed at them by the experimenter or delivered by a third party assumingly unrelated to the study or the experimenter, they picked up fewer books and pencils, if they chipped in to help at all.

Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering and author of the book “The No Asshole Rule,” said the study provides “some of the strongest evidence I’ve seen that mean-spirited behavior can undermine productivity and creativity. This well-crafted research shows that when organizations allow rude employees to run roughshod over others, it not only creates uncivilized workplaces, it is just plain bad business.”