Rudeness Rationales: Three Supports for Incivility

The logic that people use to excuse their own bad behavior keeps people acting that way. People are generally aware when they offend others. While offense may be unintentional, it rarely escapes awareness entirely. After leaving dirty cups in the office sink, people hear colleagues grumbling about the inconsiderate slobs. After a lively conversation in the hallway, people become aware that others in the vicinity would have appreciated some quiet work time. To explore how self-justification contributes to toxic work environments, we explored three justifications for rude behavior.

1. Pressure Rationale

The first is the pressure rationale: I shouted or insulted someone because I’m under great pressure at work. Due to tight deadlines or grueling schedules, people become tire, anxious, and irritable. “Give me the materials now! I’m in a hurry!” These types of statements express one person’s tension. They also dump some of that tension onto others. After acting in this way, people tend to acknowledge that they were not on their best behavior. They may even apologize for saying rude things to others, saying, “Sorry for the way I behaved; I was just so stressed.” The implication and the hope is that this was uncharacteristic behavior that won’t happen again, but, instead, stress can become a regular excuse for rude behavior.

2. Toughness Rationale

“In this business, you have to be very assertive, or people will take advantage of you.”

“You’ve got to drive people hard to get a good day’s work from employees.”

The boundary between assertive and pushy is thin. Looking after Number One can result in stepping on everyone else. Assertiveness is a powerful tool that can slide into aggression when charged with extra emotion. In leadership positions, it can be tempting to take a tough approach: focus on results and take no prisoners. But in doing so, there is an ever-present danger of showing disrespect to others. Productive employees in the contemporary economy are self-starters who take initiative, applying their abilities to professional challenges. Abrasive leaders undermine that valuable attitude. Employees experience pushiness from bosses as signs of disrespect. So, while the leaders take pride in their forceful leadership, their employees experience incivility. What employees perceive as disrespect, the leaders perceive as mentoring. The feedback loop is broken and the missed interactions continue.

3. Sensitivity Rationale

The third rationale, sensitivity, goes one step further by denying that anything uncivil occurred. The sensitivity rationale states that others are too sensitive. They take offense so easily. They lack a sense of humor. They are simply too delicate or precious to be working in a serious business. This attitude provides the comfort of entirely denying one’s bad behavior. Any fault would be with the person taking offense who lacks humor or a feel for the group’s lively and straightforward culture.

The Wall Street Journal reported a surgeon alleged that her department head said to her, “You are just a girl. Are you sure you can do that?” regarding a surgical procedure. The department head denied making the statement. Alternative rationales, had the statement been acknowledged, could be:

  1. Pressure Rationale: I was tired and rushed at that moment and said something stupid. Please forgive me.
  2. Tough Rationale: I am ultimately responsible for everything in this department and I had to make sure you were up to the task.
  3. Sensitive Rationale: Can’t you take a joke?

What to do about Rudeness Rationales

In the CREW program we develop exercises to challenge Rudeness Rationales. Encouraging individuals to reflect on Pressure, Toughness, and Sensitive Rationales is one small step.

Try it. Reflect on an occasion when you attempted to justify, if only in your own mind, an incident in which you were abrupt, thoughtless, or inconsiderate.

Did you call upon any of these rationales? Or did you use a different one entirely?

The real progress comes through structured conversations among team members on their expectations and their reactions to one another’s statements.

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