Paul Baard’s Motivation Matters: The cost of rudeness

Rudeness takes many forms. What may be considered inappropriate or offensive in one culture may not be in another. The consequences of such activity can be, and often are, not incidental. A lot of distracting and discouraging pain is caused by rude communication, contributing to a sub-optimal work experience for many. It may even prove lethal.

A study conducted in a hospital in Israel found that rudeness could cost lives. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, researchers constructed an experiment wherein 24 neonatal intensive-care teams (physicians and nurses) participated in a training exercise (not with a real baby). One group of teams received an introduction from an observing intensive care unit chief from the U.S. who provocatively stated, among other things, that he was “not impressed with the quality of medicine in Israel” and the medical staff “wouldn’t last a week” in his department. This was the “rude” simulated condition in the experiment. The other teams received neutral comments about improvement.

When teams were subjected to the rude comments, they made significantly more diagnostic and treatment errors. In a real-life intensive care unit, this could readily prove deadly. Videotapes revealed that poor collaboration and communication were a root cause of their inferior performance.

The idea that several gratuitous, critical comments could sabotage experienced clinicians might seem a stretch, but the authors explained that rudeness interferes with working memory “which is the ‘workbench’ of the cognitive system where most planning, analyses and management goals occurs (sic).” Beyond medical teams, acting tough through aggressive speech is often a favored management posture, but it has been found that such an approach creates unacceptable anxiety levels and saps resources in the subconscious mind.

Other studies provide further evidence concerning the undermining psychological effect of rudeness, whether one is a direct target of it or merely a vicarious witness of the offensive behavior. The matter is insidious and contagious. As the field of management focuses ever more on the dynamics of team success and the need for adaptability, it would serve the informed manager well to set the pace on civil, polite behavior. The goal is to create an environment where people are respected and valued, rather than demeaned and intimidated.

Rude behavior is a direct assault on others’ motivation. We cannot expect people to become self-motivated and have the kind of confidence and drive that lead to greater productivity, both quantitatively as well as qualitatively, when rudeness is tolerated. Workplaces should be a safe place to ask questions of management, in an assertive — not aggressive — manner, without fear of reprisal or verbal ridicule. Strong leaders should encourage clear feedback, negative included. If rude behavior is observed, the caring leader should seek out an opportunity for a hard conversation, spoken in candor with the intent of bringing about necessary changes.

One characteristic that can greatly enhance a firm’s motivational environment is the level of humility in its leaders. This core quality is found in emotionally mature managers who inspire closer teamwork, trust, rapid learning, and high performance in their teams. Humble people have a greater awareness of their own weaknesses and have a greater appreciation of others’ strengths. Increasingly, executive search efforts include consideration of candidates’ humility, with greater tools available for assessment of same.

Research aside, it seems obvious that mutual respect and collaboration are better enhanced in a polite atmosphere. Workplace violence, verbal and otherwise, continues to be a plague on our society. Extinguishing rudeness would appear to be a good start to reducing this problem.

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Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation. He has served as a professor with Fordham University, a senior line executive in the television industry, and is the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at [email protected].