In the Workplace, Incivility Begets Incivility, New Study Shows

Incivil behaviors at work — put-downs, sarcasm and other condescending comments — tend to have a contagious effect, according to a new study by a management professor at the University of Arkansas and several colleagues.

Incivil behaviors are less serious than openly hostile behavior such as bullying, harassment and threats, but incivil behaviors are also more frequent in the workplace and have a significant effect on employees, the study found.

“And it’s probably costing companies a lot more money,” said Chris Rosen, professor of management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. “Estimates are that workplace incivility has doubled over the past two decades and on average costs companies about $14,000 per employee annually because of loss of production and work time.”

Rosen and his colleagues surveyed 70 employees. Three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays, the employees answered questions and completed performance-based tasks that allowed the researchers to study how and why acts of incivility are contagious in business organizations.

The researchers found that experiencing rude behavior increased mental fatigue, which reduced employees’ self-control and led them to act in a similar, incivil manner later in the day. These “incivility spirals” occurred unintentionally and predominantly in workplaces that were perceived as “political,” which was defined as an environment where workers do what is best for them and not best for the organization.

“Basically, incivility begets incivility,” said Rosen. “And our findings verify that these contagion effects occur within very short, even daily cycles.”

To reduce perceptions of politics at work, the researchers suggested that managers provide clear feedback to employees regarding the types of behaviors that are desired. This practice can be accomplished informally, by enhancing the quality of feedback during day-to-day interactions, or formally through performance evaluations.

The researchers’ study was published in the June issue of Journal of Applied Psychology.

Rosen’s co-authors were Russell Johnson at Michigan State University, Allison Gabriel at the University of Arizona and Joel Koopman at the University of Cincinnati.

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among only 2 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.

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