How remote work fosters rudeness – and what to do about it!

How remote work fosters rudeness – and what to do about it!

Remote working requires special attention to rudeness and incivility. Leaders will need to understand the social implications (both good and bad) of cyber work before adopting it long term, new research shows. “As organizations adopt virtual operations as a core way of conducting business in the long term, managers need to be conscious of the powerful effect of slights, snubs, and other rude behavior on employee and team functioning.”

‘Our research on selective incivility — subtle slights, interruptions, and disregard experienced by women, members of racial minorities, and other marginalized employees — demonstrates that incivility is damaging to performance and deteriorates team functioning’, says Dana Kabat-Farr, associate professor at the Rowe School of Business of the Dalhousie University and Rémi Labelle-Deraspe, PhD candidate at the department of psychology and a lecturer in organizational behaviour at the School of Business of the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, presenting their research in Harvard Business Review.

“Virtual spaces are uniquely susceptible to this form of insidious behavior, as online team meetings, chatrooms, and team management spaces provide ample opportunity for disrespect to thrive. Managers need to be keenly aware of how incivility manifests online in order to create spaces that include all voices and diverse contributions.”

“For employees from marginalized groups, patterns of uncivil experiences may signal that they don’t belong in the organization or that their perspective is not welcome. Managers can create an antidote to incivility by providing opportunities for personal connections and accountability to shared norms of r

The researchers say that employees of colour, LGBTQIA employees, and those with other marginalized identities experience rudeness at the workplace more often.

“In an online environment, it’s even easier to act uncivilly: Physical distance makes us feel separated from one another, and there are few consequences for bad actors.”

”The crucial problem for a diverse workforce is that these trivialized experiences also translate into poor work and mental health outcomes for those at the receiving end. And when incivility becomes a daily hassle, marginalized members take that as a cue that they’re not respected or valued, and they may leave the organization altogether.”

“The ambiguous nature of incivility leaves room for interpretation. When the cause of the mistreatment is unclear, employees are more likely to make internal attributions (“Was it something I did?” “Do they think I’m not competent?”), leading to self-doubt, lowered self-esteem and rumination. As a veiled form of bias, this process can be just as damaging — to the employee as well as the organization — as overt forms of discrimination, where attributions are more easily externalized (“He’s sexist” or “She’s racist”).”

“Subtle forms of discrimination are also harder to identify and address using organizational policies, making them more likely to be a chronic stressor for marginalized employees.”

The researchers point at some actions that managers can take

  • Make the expectation for respectful interactions explicit. One way to make the team’s expectations for respect explicit is to jointly create a team contract that includes respect as a core principle. Examples include, “We will not speak over one another in meetings,” or “Contributions will be recorded via the team chat to ensure all members get credit for their ideas.”
  • Make following up on interpersonal mishaps a norm. Video meetings open the door for misinterpretation, as virtual interactions are less rich than in-person ones. Make it less awkward to inquire about such “lost in translation” experiences to reduce ambiguity for others. One way to start this process is to be open about your own potential missteps. Follow up immediately by acknowledging that you sensed awkwardness or that you weren’t sure your message was conveyed appropriately.
  • Call people in. Calling people out alienates individuals and fosters a sense of fear and social derision that can permeate your organizational culture. Instead, if you’d like to correct a behaviour that was perceived as rude, call people in to have a conversation with the goal of changed behaviour.

When having these conversations, avoid blame and snap judgments; instead, focus on the impact of the behavior and work together to find solutions.

If you yourself are called in for rude behavior, listen with respect and apologize when necessary. As a leader, a public apology is a powerful way to influence the culture of your workplace.

  • Beware of bias. Even chronic instigators of incivility may be unaware of the impact of their behavior. Try to avoid thinking of these employees as “bad apples” but rather acknowledge that while most of us think of ourselves as upstanding moral citizens, we are all works in progress. This might help reduce their defensiveness, as the negative associations, stereotypes, and assumptions we hold about others, even implicitly, influence our behaviours and stem from long histories involving racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

The researcher Dana Kabat-Farr is focusing on workplace social experiences. She pays particular attention to gender harassment, incivility as a covert form of discrimination against women and people of colour, and positive and negative experiences that influence employees’ ability to thrive.

Rémi Labelle-Deraspe’s research investigates incivility, harassment, modern forms of discrimination, and violent behaviours, with a focus on interventions to address subtle mistreatment.


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