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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Jul 2, 2021


Many people claim there is an epidemic of rudeness in our organisations. Is that true, or is it a case of a few bad apples ruining the bunch?



Hello and welcome to episode 119 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. In this episode we find out whether there really is an epidemic of rudeness at work, or just a few bad apples ruining the bunch.

Some have described rudeness and incivility in our workplaces as an epidemic. I’m sure each of use can share anecdotal stories of angry and rude people. These examples do tend to stick in our minds. But is it really an epidemic?

In a study just published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researchers measured the level of rudeness between employees. The research included a diverse range of office, manufacturing and restaurant environments. On first look at the results, it’s easy to see why people refer to an epidemic of rudeness. In fact, the researchers found 70% of people experienced rudeness at work. That’s a pretty extraordinary figure. However, the same research demonstrated that rudeness was a characteristic in just 16% of relationships. So while many people observe and experience rudeness at work, it’s a much smaller percentage of people contributing to this rudeness. Their research suggests that a relatively small number of people being rude has a disproportionately large impact on others.

This finding makes a lot of sense. Even if you’re not on the receiving end of rudeness, it still impacts you. I vividly remember a senior leader who would routinely berate and belittle others both behind their back and to their face. He was extraordinarily rude. So even though I wasn’t on the receiving end, the rude behaviour had a dramatic impact on my assessment of the individual and also the organisation. There seemed to be little interest by other senior leaders in the issue or any attempt to tackle the behaviour. Ultimately people left the organisation while the rude leader remained. 

Given the toxic impact of rudeness, organisations need to have a zero tolerance for rude behaviours. And when I say ‘organisations’, I really mean leaders at all levels. Not only do leaders need to be role models of positive behaviours, they also need to confront negative and rude behaviours immediately. It could be that the person being rude doesn’t have a sense of their impact, so swift feedback may well help them to avoid sabotaging their own career.

However a great work environment isn’t just one that lacks rudeness. You don’t create a great workplace by just removing negative behaviours. We need to also encourage positive behaviours and interactions. We need to foster kindness, respect and inclusion.

So, an epidemic of rudeness? Probably not. However, the latest research clearly demonstrates that a few bad apples can definitely spoil an organisation.



Shannon G. Taylor, Lauren R. Locklear, Donald H. Kluemper, Xinxin Lu. Beyond targets and instigators: Examining workplace incivility in dyads and the moderating role of perceived incivility norms.Journal of Applied Psychology, 2021; DOI: 10.1037/apl0000910