You're Rude Because Your Boss Is Rude

Harvard Business Review

What drives employees to be rude?

Over 60% blame their bad behavior on being overloaded at work. They say they have no time to be nice. Mental overload and stress short-circuit our capacity to be fully attentive about anything — even those with whom we work.

As one person who responded to our last post wrote:

The company ... had so many people rude to each other, not because of their congenital lack of civility, but because of the stress at work and rigid company culture. ... Nobody had somewhere to vent their frustration.

But stress isn't the only reason people are uncivil at work. In our current HBR article, we present research findings that about one in four people are rude because their bosses are rude. Employees notice what seems to be working then they follow that lead, for better or worse. Some of you wrote to us that your bosses were rude as a way of creating distance — a way to show who's boss, to set themselves apart. Others reported that managers had encouraged them to be rude.

We heard, for instance:

[B]eing respectful of others is a part of our culture [but] I have been told by my C-level management to step up and be a b**** and an a******. They even asked me to repeat it after them in the meaning.
I actually had a manager advise me to ... make my employees feel more uncomfortable around me.

Twenty percent say their company or boss doesn't care how people treat each other. Complaints aren't taken seriously, and we've often heard that those who speak up pay the price. One letter-writer told of a manager who said that going to HR for bullying was "silly." Another wrote about a colleague with a "my way or no way" philosophy:

She talks badly about me to others.... She always makes it personal if I do not support every one of her ideas... Yes, I have asked my boss for help. Over the years, every one of my superiors have told me to just 'make it work — or else.' She is untouchable. I have given up working collaboratively with this person to benefit organizational goals. The only other option I have is to leave the organization, and I'm not ready to do that.

What can companies do to counteract these behaviors? Let's start with four suggestions, two for the organization, two for the individual employee.

Organizations can:


  • Make civility a priority and set guidelines. People are busy, but how long does it take to smile, say "hi," or refrain from a zinger? In our article on civility, we describe a policy in place at Ochsner Health System, which is a large provider in Louisiana. The "10/5 way" says that if you're within ten feet of someone, you must make eye contact. Within five feet you say hello. The company's already reported greater patient satisfaction and an increase in patient referrals.

  • Provide training. It just might help. One person who responded to our post described a manager who was so combative that over ten years his secretaries lasted only about six months each before quit or requested a transfer. Eventually an HR rep told him that if he lost another secretary he'd be gone. He went through some training to learn better behavioral patterns and has become "a great boss to work with."

Individuals can:

  • Walk away. Ideally, people will speak up and management will respond, but we know from our research and readers of this blog that speaking up isn't always realistic. In those cases, the best response is a measured one. One manager told us that when his boss would start "raving" on the phone he would simply say that he'd be willing to discuss the issue, but only in a civil manner. And then he'd hang up the phone. Another advised people to "let it go internally ... it is a small person to give offense but a grand person who can walk away with dignity." Leaving the conversation until civility is restored is often the only solution.

  • Learn from it. When somebody's rude it's tempting to give back the same or take it out on somebody else. But you might instead look at it as a learning opportunity. One young employee wrote to tell us that after a more-experienced employee had interrupted her during conference calls, and later criticized her for disagreeing, saying, "We are not equal." Once she's gained more experience, she said: "I hope to never make another human being feel like we are not equal." Another letter-writer acknowledged having been rude to colleagues only to find that "the after-taste has always been bitter. ... Rudeness hurts both the giver and the recipient."

Thank you for writing. It's clear from your letters that rudeness is still rampant. Now we'd like to know: Does your company have a strategy for combating incivility? And do you?

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