Employees who are treated rudely by co-workers tend to lose self-control and end up treating others in the same uncivil manner, new research finds.
Russell Johnson, one of the study's authors and an associate professor of management at Michigan State University, said the study reveals how incivility in the workplace quickly spreads.
"People who are recipients of incivility at work feel mentally fatigued as a result, because uncivil behaviors are somewhat ambiguous and require employees to figure out whether there was any abusive intent," Johnson said in a statement. "This mental fatigue, in turn, led them to act uncivil toward other workers."
The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that this type of offensive behavior, which can include condescending comments, put-downs and sarcasm, has doubled over the past 20 years.
While it doesn't rise to the level of open hostility and bullying, incivility in the workplace can have a significant impact. The research shows that uncivil behavior has an average annual impact on companies of $14,000 per employee due to loss of production and work time.
For the study, researchers surveyed 70 employees three times a day for two weeks on incivility and its effects. The study's authors discovered that incivility often leads the original victims to unintentionally act similarly to others. [See Related Story: Toxic Co-Worker Test: How to Identify and Avoid Them]
"When employees are mentally fatigued, it is more difficult for them to keep their negative impulses and emotions in check, which leads them to be condescending and rude to colleagues," Johnson said. "This happens even for employees who desire to be agreeable and polite; they simply lack the energy to suppress curt and impatient responses."
Incivility can really spiral out of control in workplaces that are considered political. The researchers said these businesses are filled with employees who do what is best for them, not what is best for the organization. In these environments, victims of incivility have to exert more energy to understand why they were targeted and how to respond.
"Organizational politics likely increase the amount of attentional resources that employees must expend to unravel the meaning of uncivil acts that they experience, thereby strengthening the relationship between experienced incivility and diminished self-control," the study's authors wrote.
The researchers believe the key to stopping this spread of poor behavior is to clearly lay out what is expected of employees to get them thinking about their actions on a regular basis.
"We found that employees who think about the self-referenced meaning of behavior were less likely to exhibit incivility, despite fewer attentional resources," the study's authors wrote.
The researchers suggest that in politically charged organizations, human resources professionals should create competency models that include goals of discouraging political behaviors and incentivizing managers to create environments that are less political.
"Doing so would reduce demands on employees' self-control by decreasing the amount of ambiguity and uncertainty that extort a larger tax on sense-making," the study's authors wrote.
The study was co-authored by Christopher Rosen, a professor at the University of Arkansas; Allison Gabriel, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona; and Joel Koopman, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati.