The problem with rudeness at work

JAMES ADONIS
Last updated 12:43 29/06/2012

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"Mr Rude is rude.

He is very rude.

He is very, very rude.

He is worse than very, very rude.

He is extraordinarily rude."

The classic Mr Men book by Roger Hargreaves continues with an apt description of the character: "Mr Rude was a horrible man who didn't have a nice thing to say to anyone and, not surprisingly, no one liked him."

It is true that Mr (and Mrs) Rude exist not just in children's books but in workplaces too, causing consternation wherever they go.

There are benefits to rudeness ... that is, for those who perpetrate it. In a study conducted by a trio of American universities last year, it was discovered that rude men earn 18 per cent more than "agreeable" men, while rude women earn 5 per cent more than nice women.

The study comprised 10,000 workers over a period of 20 years, and it concluded that one explanation for the salary difference is that rude people tend to be more forceful during salary negotiations. The result? They get what they want.

Sure, rudeness might offer an advantage to some people, but it creates a stack of problems for others. Research released in 2011 by Baylor University in Texas found rude people at work create a negative impact not only on their unfortunate colleagues, but also on their colleagues' partners. Here's how.

Recipients of rudeness get stressed, and when they go home to their partners all frazzled and emotional, that negativity gets passed on and consequently affects their marital satisfaction.

Then, the newly infected partners - the ones who haven't had any contact with the rude employee - take that contagious negativity back to their own workplace, spreading the insolence further afield.

In the end, the rude employee in one workplace has imposed somewhat of a butterfly effect, sending ripples of discontent far beyond their own team.

Perhaps a reason for the rudeness is that people confuse it with assertiveness. The latter can be useful. It's a skill that helps people communicate more articulately, to defend themselves, and to make a greater contribution to workplace discussions. But rudeness, on the other hand, does the opposite.

In an analysis published in the British Medical Journal two years ago, academics demonstrated the ways in which rude employees generate a greater number of mistakes.

In one experiment, a manager said to a participant: "What is it with you? You arrive late, you are irresponsible. Look at you; how do you expect to hold down a job in the real world?"

In that example, the rudeness wasn't really that extreme and the volume with which it was communicated wasn't loud, and yet it still resulted in a poorer level of performance - even among colleagues who simply observed the incident.

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But where do you draw the line between rudeness and discipline? In some cases, the behaviour and incompetence of employees necessitates some kind of authoritative approach from managers, particularly when ongoing amounts of coaching hasn't resulted in any improvement.

There are countless occasions, especially in the public service, where employees have accused their bosses of bullying just because they were given some negative feedback. It's not really a matter of rudeness - and rarely is it an issue of harassment - and yet managers end up spending copious amounts of time in tribunals and HR meetings, all because they were doing their job.

So how do you deal with a rude colleague? In their book, 201 Ways to Deal With Difficult People, Alan Axelrod and James Holtje suggest it's a good idea to act as though the rudeness doesn't affect you. Simply smile, they write.

In the Mr Men book, for instance, Mr Happy gets Mr Rude to stop being rude by constantly smiling at him - although I doubt that would work in the real world.

Axelrod and Holtje also issue a warning: "Look in the mirror. Sometimes the rude behaviour of others may be a response to signals you may not even be aware you're sending."

Some of those signals include cutting people off mid-sentence, not offering praise, and being impolite.

It's a good reminder of that old saying: be nice to people on your way up because you might meet them on your way down.

Is rudeness a problem in your workplace? How do you handle it?

- The Age

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