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Studies: Being a Jerk Is Contagious

Office bullies don't just make life miserable for their victims, say a pair of new studies, they also infect a wider circle of colleagues with their nastiness.
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This time of year viruses carry health misery around offices, but according to the latest science, it's not just the flu that's catching. A wide range of behavior, from laughter through obesity, has been shown to spread through networks much like the latest bug.

And now, according to recent studies, we can add one more item to the list of the highly contagious: being a jerk.

You know that an obnoxious boss can make life miserable for his or her direct reports, but new research covered at length in HBR this month, shows that tormented victims are actually more likely to engage in office nastiness themselves, thereby spreading the unpleasantness in a widening circle around an organization.

A blog post by the studies authors, Christine Porath and Christine Pearson, sums up the findings: "stress isn't the only reason people are uncivil at work. In our current HBR article, we present research findings that about one in four people are rude because their bosses are rude. Employees notice what seems to be working then they follow that lead, for better or worse." They go on to offer suggestions for individuals and organizations to counter this effect.

Porath and Pearson aren't the only researchers to document this secondhand rudeness. WebMD recently reported new research from University of New Hampshire organizational behavior professor Paul Harvey which likewise shows that jerks infect their colleagues with their bullying behavior.

"Abusive bosses not only cause misery for the employees they target, but they also poison the work environment for the victims' co-workers," reports the article. How? The researchers write: "Employees realize that the organization is allowing this negative treatment to exist, even if they are not experiencing it directly."

The takeaway here for business owners isn't a mystery. Obviously, if you're guilty of occasional nastiness yourself, cut it out immediately. You're doing more harm than you may have realized. But even if you're the picture of civility yourself, these latest findings are more evidence tipping the scales towards a zero tolerance policy for jerks at your company, even if they're high-performing jerks.

Have you noticed bad behavior spread this way in your own professional life?  

 

Last updated: Feb 19, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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