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Incivility at work is ‘paid forward’ to co-workers: study

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Photo: Nicolas McComber/iStockphoto

East Lansing, MI – Lack of civil behavior in the workplace can cause employees to experience mental fatigue and respond in a similar manner, which can negatively affect an organization’s bottom line, according to a recent study from Michigan State University.

“Incivility spirals” occur when an employee experiences rude behavior – such as sarcasm and put-downs – on the job and “pays it forward” to co-workers through similar behavior.

As part of the study, 70 workers filled out a survey three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays. Some incivility spirals developed unintentionally as workers reported feeling more mental fatigue and lacking the energy to suppress terse or impatient responses to colleagues.

“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,” Russell Johnson, co-author of the study and associate professor of management at Michigan State, said in a press release. “This mental fatigue, in turn, led them to act uncivil toward other workers.”

To combat incivility spirals, which can cost employers an estimated $14,000 per worker annually in lost workdays and lost productivity, researchers said employers should provide clear feedback about appropriate workplace behaviors. Those messages may be conveyed as part of the performance management process or even during day-to-day interactions.

The findings also may have ramifications for worker safety. According to NIOSH documents, although more research is needed, “there is a growing concern that stressful working conditions interfere with safe work practices and set the stage for injuries at work.”

The study was published in June in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

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