Rude comments aren’t all too uncommon in a workplace. Whether it’s an off-color joke, a biting remark or an inconsiderate assertion, there’s no doubt that the mood changes after such a comment. We’re told to either “take a joke” or simply shrug off the rudeness as inconsequential or unintended.
That’s easier said than done when abrasive remarks are part of a team leader’s management style. That rudeness trickles down from the management to the rest of the staff. In the heat of the moment, even the best of us can say something stupid. Team dynamics take an enormous hit in light of such remarks.
We personally may feel capable dealing with rude comments. The reality is that the effects of such comments linger on. Researchers discovered the startling negative effects such comments have on professionals. It turns out performance quantifiably goes down in teams coping with cruel remarks from management. More harmonious teams make fewer mistakes and perform far more efficiently.
It sounds almost too simple to be true, but the secret to building a strong, productive team can be as simple as putting an end to caustic remarks.
The study involved a training simulation with medical teams working in a neonatal intensive care unit. The stakes are high when dealing with ill infants, as the slightest mistake can mean the difference between life or death. Decisions need to be made quickly and correctly in emergency situations, and the training simulation was similarly designed.
In the study, an “expert” was assigned to the teams and would make neutral comments to the control group or rude statements to the experimental group. Seems like a fairly innocuous wrinkle, right? What sort of effect could some unpleasant comments possibly have? Everyone involved was a professional experienced in dealing with emergency situations.
Despite the experimental group’s combined experience, the rude comments had a remarkable effect. The experimental group suffered in both their diagnostic and procedural performance. Researchers found rudeness alone accounted for a 12 percent difference in performance.
This wasn’t just a one-off finding. A follow-up study published this year confirmed the earlier study. Researchers concluded that “rudeness has robust, deleterious effects on the performance of medical teams. Moreover, exposure to rudeness debilitated the very collaborative mechanisms recognized as essential for patient care and safety.”
The Downside of Harshness
While the downsides of rudeness are especially pronounced in high-stress medical situations, it applies to any other line of work. Collaboration is essential whether you’re pushing out a new product, managing some freelancers or taking part in the weekly team meeting. Anyone trying to build an effective team—or simply participate in one— needs to take note.
While harsh comments may have a positive effect on productivity for a little while (think of a drill sergeant working with raw recruits at boot camp), such tactics won’t work forever. Eventually, resentment bubbles up and performance slips. That’s even the case when comments are unintentionally rude and intended merely as help. Despite the noble intentions, words can have a lasting effect when it comes to teamwork.
As the studies found, rude comments seriously impact the efficiency of a team. That’s on the macro level. On the micro level, the problems are varied. Resentment flairs up if someone is on the receiving end of insensitive remarks. Instead of speaking up, people withdraw from the others. On top of that, bruised egos are hard to recover. It’s a devastating combination of factors when trying to build up a team.
Rudeness, even if coming from just one source, tends to permeate around the office and infect everyone around. The stress follows people home and even affects familial relationships.
Rude remarks are coming from a manager rather than a coworker are especially problematic. Authority has a lot of influence on the workplace, and people have been proven to follow the lead of those above them. When a person at the top is causing the problems, then putting an end to the negative remarks is difficult to stop.
The more troubling example of this is a study described in the must-read Influence: Science and Practice by Dr. Robert Cialdini. In the Yale University study, subjects were told to press a button to shock a victim whenever they answered a question incorrectly. Mercifully, the victims were merely actors pretending to be shocked. However, as the perceived punishment reached sadistic levels, two-thirds of participants ignored their pain and continuing shocking them with increasing strength.
Why didn’t the participants stop? Simply because they were told by researchers not to stop. An impolite remark isn’t as cruel as a deliberate physical pain. However, the experiment shows just how pernicious negative behavior can be when condoned by someone in authority.
It sounds both ridiculously obvious and annoyingly new-agey that being nicer helps teams perform better. Don’t worry—this doesn’t mean that you need to form drum circles or participate in endless team-building activities. Instead of being overly nice, teams just need to avoid being overly rude. It’s that simple.