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Rudeness is a precursor for bullying – so what should leaders be doing?

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With recent research showing rudeness at work is a clear risk factor for bullying, what should leaders be doing to tackle it?

We consistently advocate for early intervention with situations, when we work with organisations to manage and prevent inappropriate behaviour at work.
We see so much evidence that if inappropriate and disrespectful behaviours are not addressed early, they become not only tolerated, but normalised and eventually escalate.

When we are called in to help with a very clear incident of sexual misconduct, harassment or bullying, we are nearly always able to see evidence that inappropriate behaviours have been accepted over a long period of time. The more serious incidents rarely happen out of the blue – they happen because no one has checked ongoing rude, discourteous or inappropriate behaviour prior to that point
It is valuable then to see this being backed up by research looking at workplace incivility as a risk factor for bullying (The findings are published in the journal BMC Psychology).

Kristoffer Holm from Malmö University says of his research “The major contribution of our study is that we can see that there is a clear connection between rudeness and bullying over time. The risk was clearly elevated over the entire time span in the study. If you don’t act in time, work-related conflicts can develop into bullying in the worst case”

So armed with this empirical evidence, the only question for leaders has to be what action to take?
• Role model at all times – leaders should hold the mirror up to themselves and ask if they are consistently leading from the front in terms of respectful, courteous and fair behaviour
• This should extend beyond each individual senior leader’s behaviour to how they function as a team – what are SLT/Board meetings like? Are they run in an inclusive respectful way? Or do they get heated? Do team members shout and swear at each other? Do directors undermine each other?
• The Board/SLT/Management team should be able to support each other and critically hold each other to account – if a fellow director is being derogatory about another department or client for example, do other team members feel able to say something?
• Leaders and managers should create regular opportunity for behaviour to be discussed – decoding corporate values can be really valuable. What does “integrity” look like in our day to day interactions? Bring clarity to what we mean by respectful behaviour
• Be alert to situations and address them early – most situations can be “nipped in the bud”
• If there are situations where rude or disrespectful behaviour needs addressing
o handle situations with empathy – few people intend to offend or go out of their way to be difficult. More often comments are misjudged, misguided or the
product of other pressures
o take an exploratory approach – ask questions to understand what is going on and try and get to the root cause
o agree specific changes or actions ensure behaviour becomes more respectful
o reinforce positive behaviour through feedback discussions


Toxic cultures such as the one at the TSSA that hit the headlines recently do not happen overnight. They happen because no one steps in to stop them at an early stage. They are completely avoidable and it is the role of leaders and managers everywhere to prevent them forming and create a safe and respectful culture for everyone.

If any of the above has rung true for you and you would like to ensure your leaders are role modelling for the rest of the organisation – or if there are specific teams that are not behaving in a respectful way please contact us – we can help!
For more information please call us on 01903 732 782, email us at, contact us, or take a look at how we have helped other organisations tackle rude and disrespectful behaviour