Texas Tech University

Rawls Research Spotlight: “A Little Rudeness Goes a Long Way”

Jacob Gordon

January 28, 2022


Organizational norms should be rooted in gratitude to promote civil work relationships.


  • Nearly 70% of employee participants said they experienced workplace rudeness
  •  Rudeness outbreaks were localized, often traced to a single employee
  •  Organizational norms should be rooted in gratitude to promote civil work relationships

Imagine a drop of red dye has just been added to a glass of water. Almost immediately, that one drop will start to spread, giving what was crystal-clear looking water a red hue. Soon, that glass of water that seemed refreshing a minute ago appears unpleasant, all thanks to one drop of dye.

Rudeness colors the workplace just as a drop of dye tinted the glass of water.

In “A Little Rudeness Goes a Long Way,” Lauren Locklear, assistant professor of management in the Jerry S. Rawls College of Business, and Shannon G. Taylor, professor of management at the University of Central Florida, set out to study how rudeness spreads in the workplace.

For this study, which was published in MIT Sloan Management Review, Locklear and Taylor surveyed restaurant and office workers in the U.S. and manufacturing employees in China.

Nearly 70% of the 600 employees surveyed experienced rudeness at work.

But Locklear and Taylor noticed that while a majority of participants experienced workplace rudeness, the participants weren't characterizing most of their work relationships as rude. So, where were the rude experiences coming from?

“[Rudeness] spreads more like an endemic disease, wreaking havoc locally,” wrote Locklear and Taylor. “In many workplaces we studied, outbreaks were traced to a single source: one office jerk spewed incivility like a contaminated water pump.”

The study also explored the impact that organizational norms can have on rudeness. Norms were placed into two categories: 1.) beliefs about how people actually behave and 2.) beliefs about how people should behave.

“An employee's perceptions about how their colleagues should treat one another had a stronger impact on rude behavior than an employee's perceptions about how their colleagues actually treated one another,” wrote Locklear and Taylor.

So, what can managers do? Locklear and Taylor offer three recommendations for minimizing and addressing workplace rudeness.

1. Develop strong shared expectations for how people should (and should not) behave

The more workplace norms are explicitly defined, the more likely employees will follow those norms.

This is especially true for minimizing rudeness.

“Negative information is given more attention by our brains and is thus ‘stickier' than positive information,” Locklear and Taylor wrote. “Evidence suggest that company policies against incivility are most effective when managers clearly define what bad behavior entails.”

2. Provide targeted training

Remember how rudeness could often be traced back to a single employee? Locklear and Taylor believe the training should be nearly as targeted.

However, instead of training individual employees, Locklear and Taylor suggest targeting teams or departments that struggle with a relationship problem.

“Individuals could feel punished and resentful and resist training if they are called out for something they may not even realize they are doing,” they wrote.

3. Encourage gratitude and appreciation

Locklear and Taylor see small but frequent expressions of gratitude as being key to developing positive workplace norms and behaviors. This could include employees writing gratitude journals or meetings that start with members sharing something they are grateful for.

“When you focus on your colleagues' contributions rather than what you gained, [your colleagues] are more likely to feel that you understand, validate and care about them, which builds and strengthens bonds.”