Rude at work? Feeling guilty can make you a better, kinder worker

June 2, 2024

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Rude at work? Feeling guilty can make you a better, kinder worker

We’ve all done it. A bad night’s sleep or a tough commute made us cranky, and we lashed out at a coworker who did nothing wrong. What can we do to make up for it?

According to a new study, embracing our guilty feelings can help us make up for our bad behavior by encouraging us to act more politely and work harder the next day.

What the researchers say: “We found that anyone can be rude at work, because anyone can have a bad day. And you end up feeling bad,” said the study’s lead author. “Because you feel guilty, the next day at work, you work harder, and you’re more careful not to be rude again. It’s self-correcting over time. Which might explain why some people are rude some days and not rude other days.”

A deep body of workplace research has shown how rudeness spreads within organizations, acting like a contagious disease. But few studies have asked how acting rudely affects the people who are unkind, or what employees do after being mean to coworkers.

To uncover how workers respond to acting rudely, the researchers conducted three studies tracking people’s daily workplace habits and encouraging them to recall times they acted discourteously to their peers.

They discovered that workers who shouted at or excluded coworkers felt guilty and were more likely to vent to their partners at home that evening. But the next day, they put their head down, worked harder, and were less likely to be rude again, seemingly in an effort to repair their relationships and reputation.

“When you’re being uncivil, it comes back to hurt you as well,” the researchers said. “Guilt is this complex phenomenon. It’s burdensome, but it can also help us recover by reducing incivility and engaging more at work.”

Of course, it’s best to avoid being unkind in the first place, the researchers said. It hurts other people, and it can infect the workplace.

“But we can take solace in this idea that people have opportunities to correct their behavior by working harder, apologizing, and being more polite,” they concluded.

So, what? Quite a few studies—reported previously in TR—have shown that both rudeness and bullying can be genetically based (especially in men) and/or the result of the depletion of glutamate in the brain. We become less ethical and more inclined to bully or be rude under stress because being polite and courteous uses up our supply of the neurochemical form of glutamate.

Glutamate makes us act civilly, listen to what other people are saying, be influenced by them and be interested in them. It arrives in the cortex via glutamine which itself is derived from food. Studies have shown that snacking reduces both rudeness and bullying in those not genetically predisposed to being bullies.

About 5% of us have the genes which make us “pure bullies”—those who are not on occasion victims as well—or naturally rude. These are the same genes which drive people to become leaders at any level. Having the genetic predisposition to be a leader does not make you a good one and the “bully leader” often found in positions of power in organizations is definitely not the ideal.

Recent studies have shown that both bullies and naturally rude people are more likely to be promoted and rewarded more highly in both politics and business.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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