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How corporate rudeness impairs results

Every business wants high-performing employees, so create a culture where what’s being said is more important than who’s saying it

Person, Human, Computer Keyboard Creative Commons
Rudeness in the workplace damages your ability to manage information and make decisions

According to a leaked report by former NHS England deputy medical director Mike Bewick, a hospital in London had a cardiac surgery death rate almost twice the national average. And the reason was the culture. 

The report explains there was a lot of internal politics and inadequate scrutiny so that the department was riven between “two camps” exhibiting “tribal-like activity”. Members of the department said they “felt there was a persistent toxic atmosphere and said there was a ‘dark force’ in the unit.”

These highly educated professionals, who swore an oath to protect lives, instead behaved in a way that allowed the report to add: “In our view the whole team shares responsibility for the failure to significantly improve professional relationships and to a degree surgical mortality.” The report further states: “Most felt that poor performance was inevitable due to the pervading atmosphere.”

And yet when the death rate data was brought to their attention, the unit took a “defensive approach”. 

We have rights and responsibilities, and we need to exercise both. Doctors, and indeed leaders in all walks of life, say, show us the data and we’ll take it seriously. The data is there. In one study, a rude comment from a third-party doctor decreased performance among doctors and nurses by more than 50 percent in an exercise involving a hypothetical life-or-death situation.

“We found that rudeness damages your ability to think, manage information and make decisions,” said Amir Erez, an author on the study and a Huber Hurst professor of management at the University of Florida. “You can be motivated to work, but if rudeness damages your cognitive system then you can’t function appropriately in a complex situation. And that hurts patients.”

How people communicate with each other is a result of the culture they work in and has an impact on decision-making and results. This seems like something on which we should improve. 

Cultural challenge for businesses

It’s a challenge for all businesses. It involves lots of work, over time and often entails dealing with egos who don’t think they have anything to learn. 

Those who ‘get it’ need to be more vocal about the importance of communication and company culture, and organisations need to start putting their money where their mouths (or slogans) are. 

Every business wants high-performing teams and that means teams where everybody speaks up. For most businesses, this represents a big cultural change. 

Don’t send your people on a one-day training programme and expect to fix things. You will need to work at it every day. Be clear on what behaviours you want to see and teach them explicitly, hire for them, train for them, get rid of people who won’t show them and create a culture where what’s being said is more important than who’s saying it. 

Hierarchy is necessary, but following the chain of command doesn’t mean those at the top can bully those below them. It doesn’t absolve those at the bottom of responsibility for their behaviours either. Hierarchy tells us our roles and responsibilities and one of these is to put the organisation’s desired results at the heart of what you’re doing: in the case of healthcare that result should be patient outcomes.  

The lessons here are relevant outside medical settings. Your specific situation may not involve life and death but the impact of rudeness on cognition is the same everywhere. 

Dawn Metcalfe is a Dubai-based workplace culture advisor

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