Science Explains Why There’s Always a Jerk at Work
Jerks. Every workplace has one. Or two. And if you’re lucky, they don’t work in a supervisory or management role.
Though we’ve all dealt with our fair share of office jerks, we’ve never really known why people bring the grumpies to work, or how it affects the remainder of the staff. Thanks to science, we now have a little more insight — and the news isn’t all that great.
As it turns out, rude coworkers aren’t just generally unpleasant, they can actually work as a sort of contagion, spreading their bad moods and meanness to others. Researchers from the University of Florida bit into the issue, and came away with the conclusion that the ‘rudeness contagion’ can even result in workers bringing their bad news home with them — where they can then spread to family members.
“When you experience rudeness, it makes rudeness more noticeable,” said Trevor Foulk, a doctoral student in management at UF’s Warrington College of Business Administration, in a statement released by UF. “You’ll see more rudeness even if it’s not there.”
By tracking 90 graduate students, researchers found that those who initially encountered a rude individual in a negotiation had a higher likelihood of taking that rudeness on for themselves, and becoming less pleasant in future interactions. And that transfer of the grumps lasted for a long time, even if it was a week later before another interaction took place.
“Part of the problem is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful,” Foulk added. “Rudeness has an incredibly powerful negative effect on the workplace.”
Taking this research into account, it’s not hard to see how so many workplaces seem to be filled with jerks — with so much negative energy floating around, offices can literally become whirlwinds of bad vibes. Think about it this way: a lot of us dread going to the office, and our attitudes simply fall apart as soon as we walk in the door. Considering what the UF researchers have found, there’s actual insight as to why that happens.
Another big problem that the UF researchers uncovered was the overall effect on performance resulting from workplace unpleasantness. Clearly, you’re not going to care as much about your job if you’re working for a jerk, or surrounded by jerks, than you would if you were in a happier environment. And if you’re bringing unpleasantness home with you at the end of the day, then the negativity is going to fester in other parts of your life, hurting not just your productivity, but relationships as well.
In case you were wondering, this is probably why your company’s HR department does all of those little team-building exercises, happy hours, and free doughnut Fridays — it’s to bring everyone’s spirits up a bit, and create a more hospitable work environment.
After all, who’s pissed off when they’re scarfing down a bear claw on the last day before a weekend?
For those of you wondering what you can actually do with this information and apply it to your own life, it’s pretty simple: if attitudes are contagious, just be nice. It’s easy to get sucked into others’ negativity, but if you hold your ground and “kill them with kindness,” as they say, you’ll not only be doing yourself a favor, but fighting back for the rest of your coworkers as well.
And when your HR team decides to put on another dopey team-building exercise that leaves most of the workplace groaning, just try to enjoy it.
Another way you can head off negativity is by simply letting it go when you do have a negative encounter with a coworker. Some people, when faced with rudeness or unpleasantness, feel the need to share their victimization with the entire world, immediately, on social media. Then, talk about it with coworkers, let it stew, and eventually let the resentment and need for revenge foment.
You can skip all of that and put yourself ahead of the curve. Just let it go. Nobody’s going to care or remember any of it next week anyway.
Follow Sam on Twitter @SliceOfGinger