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Rudeness demotivates a workforce

Rude: the tone used can be just as important as the words used

Have you ever been in a meeting where someone spoke to a colleague or to you in such a way that everyone in the room froze? Everyone seemed shocked, not by what was said, but how it was said — the tone of voice being used. Haven’t those issues come up a lot in this year’s presidential debates (not just the content of the message but the delivery of them)? And yet, we seem to allow colleagues at work to continue to badger others with disrespectful tones or nasty non-verbal behaviours (rolling eyes, intense stares).

Sadly, the impact will be felt when the “good” employees leave in search of a culture that values collaboration and civility. The “bullies” will stay and those who can’t leave due to financial or other reasons are left to deal with the continued bad behaviour.

We know that incivility or rudeness has many well-documented effects on the workplace such as decreased work effort, lost work time avoiding the bully or worrying about an incident, lowered organisational commitment, greater intent to turnover, and actually leaving the firm. It can be especially damaging to organisations trying to build a culture of openness and inclusion. Just one or two powerful employees who publicly chastise others or use a negative tone can impact feelings of community and belonging to those that others in the firm are trying to recruit.

The Workplace Bullying Institute reports that more than a third of US workers have experienced threats, intimidation, harassment, social exclusion or verbal abuse at work, by either a boss or colleague.

Employees may sometimes feel that speaking up about the person’s tone will make them look like they are super sensitive and can’t handle the pressure. So they say nothing and the first chance they get, they leave the department or the firm. The company may never know the real reason for why they left, but would they even have been looking if the culture had been more welcoming or less offensive or abusive?

Employees should certainly speak up and share their feelings about their colleagues’ tone and style with their immediate boss. Unless of course, it is their immediate boss who is the culprit or they perceive that their supervisor won’t care. In those cases, they could report the behaviours or comments to their human resources rep, if they have one. It is clear that unless someone with power knows about the person’s negative tone and non-verbals, that nothing will be done about it.

It is also important to be persistent about speaking up. Reporting something once about a colleague’s tone of voice does not seem to get peoples’ attention. Unfortunately, you may have to speak up several times and make it clear that it is a big issue to you. You should not have to do this, but often managers do not take you seriously unless you let them know it is really important to you.

As organisations, we need managers to get training on identifying bullying and incivility and to listen to diverse employees’ views about what they think civility means to them. Women may have different views than men. For example, a certain tone of voice may be offensive to some women yet not bother their male colleagues. The key is that managers broach the subject with all of their employees and listen to what they have to say. Managers also need to set an example for others. They must act in a professional manner and call out employees on their behaviours when they see them or hear about them.

They should also find out who the problem employees are in terms of tone and bullying and meet with them one-on-one. Get other powerful positive informal leaders to also talk with the negative employees.

It doesn’t help to have a silent majority that just watches the bullying and does nothing. Then, meeting with the bullies, it is important to describe the specifics of the behaviours or tone and explain the impact of those behaviours/tone of voice on others. They also need to set consequences for continued poor tone, negative non-verbals, etc. It’s pretty clear that if there are no consequences for bad behaviours, then nothing will change.

Bullying doesn’t just refer to physical abuse. Using a harmful tone can have just as damaging effects on employees as other forms of abuse. It’s up to managers, HR staff and all of us to take action to stop this form of bullying and make our companies places where all employees can work in an engaging, positive environment to maximise their potential and the firm’s.

Joyce Russell is the senior associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organisational psychologist and has more than 25 years of experience coaching executives and consulting on leadership, career management, and negotiations. She can be reached at jrussellrhsmith.umd.ed