Rude = Expensive

I looked across the track at the small collection of gear I had packed for this advanced survival exercise. It was nearly dark and I was being patted down to ensure I had nothing other than a pocket sized survival kit on me. I glanced nervously at my eight companions as our gear was thrown into the back of a vehicle. We were handed an envelope and our instructors drove into the gathering darkness, leaving us alone. We opened the envelope and read our instructions, "You are somewhere on one of your 3 maps ... ".

In hindsight the next three days were characterised by hasty decisions and poor communication as we struggled to come to terms with our circumstances. We also lashed out at each other - verbal sparring as we vented frustration about our external circumstances on each other.

Over the 20 years I worked as a survival instructor it never ceased to amaze me how easily individuals and groups could be made to feel they were at threat. In that state, people are more reactive than normal and results definitely suffer. It's amazing how rarely people pause to consider the best course of action.

In the modern work context a sense of threat is not unusual either. Most workplaces experience some level of uncertainty. Mostly it's from circumstances beyond our direct control. One possible reaction is rudeness to the people around us. I can certainly think of more than one occasion when my conduct was not as good as it could have been.

Rudeness in itself is enough to make people feel at threat. It damages psychological safety (How safe people feel). And it doesn't have to be extreme (or deliberate) to have an impact.

  • Raised voices
  • Harsh words
  • Intimidating body language
  • Slammed doors
  • Banter and sarcasm
  • Side conversations and excluding people
  • Disregard for people's time
  • Sending emails, taking calls, checking watches while you should be listening to someone
  • Not following through on things you said you would do

Over the last two decades, Christine Porath and colleagues have researched rudeness in the workplace. They clearly identify many impacts on individuals, teams and bottom line. A recent article in HBR summarises their findings and others in the field. If you want the detail you can find it at

How we treat each other is largely a choice. We can choose to be civil, even in the most demanding environments. It's one of the few things that we have direct control over which has a massive and positive impact on our team environment. It's an easy way to directly impact cohesion, trust, productivity and engagement. It also takes effort and attention.

All of us have moments where we crack or fray and resort to rudeness out of frustration. Perfect politeness is not the goal. But in situations when we accept rudeness from ourselves and others it gets worse, not better. Increasing levels of incivility become the norm of 'how things are done around here'. Looking at Porath's research, it's way too expensive on almost every measure to allow that. And it's on the rise.

Reflect on how you, your team and your business conduct themselves when some of these common stressors occur:

  • Giving or receiving feedback about performance
  • A new deadline, or urgent of piece of work
  • A customer complaint
  • The photocopier crapping out in the middle of an urgent print run
  • An interruption when you are in the flow of work
  • New (and probably onerous) requirements from an external regulator, customer or market
  • A long day to meet a deadline
  • Scope creep
  • A financial loss
  • Personal pressures from outside work like a puking kid, unexpected bill, or relationship problems
  • Something not going to plan

Here are four things you can do to influence how cohesive and effective your team is. A single individual can influence others by paying attention to these things. It's even more effective when whole teams (or organisations) decide to remove rudeness from their environment.

  1.  Aim - to treat each other well in spite of the pressures you face. Work on respect and integrity. Even when there are hard messages to deliver or receive, do it politely.  
  2. Recognise - the kinds of situations that tend to push your personal buttons. What about the team? Start spotting rudeness and noticing its impact. Also recognise that different people have different levels of skill around rudeness. It's much easier to avoid if you have had lots of examples through life of people who handle adversity without getting rude. 
  3. Clarify - the kinds of behaviour that you want to see, and the ones to avoid. Also the situations that may trigger rudeness. Be as specific as you can. Discuss it politely away from heated moments. Talk about what you will do when you see, experience or perpetrate rudeness. Discuss how you might raise the bar and hold each other to account. Explore where the line is between healthy banter and rudeness for your team. When people do something you consider rude, give a clear example of both the behaviour and its impact on you.
  4. Apologise - when you notice something you did or said had a negative impact on others. Do it whenever you know you have crossed the line, however small the crossing might be. Accept other people's apologies with grace. Remember it is unlikely to be perfect, cut each other some slack.