Toxic Workplace Behavior Is Contagious, Study Says

New research explains why incivility tends to spread at work.

Coworkers-talking-together
Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

When we’re on the receiving end of condescending or curt remarks at work, we may think we can brush them off. After all, they’re not as openly hostile as threats or outright bullying. But a new study shows that subtle incivility in the workplace can deplete employees’ mental resources—and makes us more likely to act rudely to other coworkers, as well.

This is how toxic culture can spread through professional networks, say researchers from Michigan State University. Workplace incivility is estimated to have doubled over the past two decades, they write in the Journal of Applied Psychology, and has an average annual impact on companies of $14,000 per employee due to loss of production and work time.

To look at what might be fueling these behaviors, the researchers surveyed 70 employees, three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays. They found that incivility tended to “spiral”—with one unkind act leading to another—and that it often occurred unintentionally.

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The reason, they say, has to do with mental fatigue and a subsequent loss of self-control. “Incivility can be somewhat ambiguous,” says co-author and management professor Russell Johnson, PhD. “So when you’re exposed to it, it can take some mental energy to understand why you were targeted and whether there was a negative intent.”

It’s depleting to manage those emotions, he adds. “You feel frustrated, angry, and anxious—and, somewhat ironically, when people are depleted like that they are more likely to pay it forward to others, even if it they don’t mean to.” He compares the phenomenon with someone who hasn’t gotten enough sleep, and is more likely to snap at others as a result.

One way employees can stop the cycle, he says, is to make sure they’re always working “with a full tank of mental fuel.” To replenish that tank, he recommends taking five-minute walking breaks to blow off steam, leaving the office to have lunch with a friend, or—if your company has the facilities for it—taking a quick power nap. “Sure, you’ll lose 30 or 40 minutes,” he says, “but you’ll be more refreshed when you return and less likely to succumb to other people’s incivility.”

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When workers are confronted with put-downs, sarcasm, or passive-aggressiveness, he says, the best thing to do is address the matter upfront. “Confront that person and ask what they meant or why they treated you that way,” he says. “It’s better than sitting around wondering about it, since that rumination seems to be what leads to those detrimental effects.”

The study also found that workplaces with “politically charged” environments—those where employees do what’s best for themselves and not for the company, and where rules and processes are not clearly laid out—had the highest levels of incivility-induced mental depletion.

“When it isn’t made clear how you should go about conducting your work or how rewards, like promotions, are given out, it can lead to undermining and one-upmanship,” says Johnson. “If managers set clear boundaries and give good feedback about what’s acceptable and what’s not, they can limit those behaviors.”

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At the very least, says Johnson—even if you can’t do much to improve your coworkers’ attitudes—simply being aware of how incivility spreads can be a positive step.

“If you know that you’re more likely to be curt to others when you’re feeling burned out, hopefully you’ll be motivated to work harder not to act this way,” he says. Now if you could just get everyone else in the office to adopt this attitude, too, maybe those rude remarks wouldn’t happen in the first place.