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Rudeness in the office can damage critical thinking skills

August 18, 2021   Christine Wilson

Critical thinking is an undervalued but crucial skill in many workplace situations. You want employees who make good judgement calls, conduct risk analyses of their decisions, and fact-check their information before believing it. Just like anything else, critical thinking is a muscle that needs building and maintenance, and can be damaged as we experience the world around us. Recent studies suggest that one risk to critical thinking is being on the receiving end of rude behavior.


In this issue of The Pulse, we look at the new evidence that suggests rudeness can damage your employees’ critical thinking and job performance.


What exactly is critical thinking?


Simply put, critical thinking is objective analysis of an idea, situation, fact, or argument before making a judgement or choosing a side.


This is important in many workplace related situations. In fact, professionals such as doctors, researchers, and advertising specialists rely heavily on this skill in their everyday work.


How can you train your critical thinking skills?


There are plenty of ways to build this skill, and many of them begin in childhood. The reading, playing, and basic problem-solving we learn at a young age help us build our critical thinking skills. It’s the reason philosophy, arts, and other humanities are critical in a world increasingly geared towards business and technology.


Something as simple as playing a board game or video game where you must come up with and test a strategy to win helps strengthen critical thinking. If you’ve ever had to deliver a proposal or pitch at work, that was an exercise in critical thinking too!


With so much available to help us flex this muscle, how can something as simple as rudeness damage it?


Bad experiences hurt our objectivity.


A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that being on the receiving end of many smaller, rude acts can create what is called an “anchoring bias.” Although that may sound unfamiliar, the concept is quite simple. An anchoring bias is a subconscious bias that causes a person to disproportionately value the first piece of information they are given about a topic.


This is a root issue in anxiety. For example, if you experienced seasickness on your very first time on a boat, you might go forward believing that travel by boat is very unpleasant without really rationalizing those thoughts. The same logic can be found in courtroom decisions, sales and promotions in retail, and, as recent studies have shown, conspiracy theories.


Trevor Foulk, one of the lead researchers on this study, explains it like this:


“If you go into the doctor and say ‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’ that can become an anchor and the doctor may get fixated on that diagnosis, even if you’re just having indigestion. If doctors don’t move off anchors enough, they’ll start treating the wrong thing.”


So how does rudeness come into play?


The study found that even “minor rude events” have a significant effect on our decision-making capabilities. They found that when supervisors are rude to their subordinates, their perspectives were narrowed, anchors were formed, and critical thinking was therefore reduced.


On top of this, rudeness in the workplace is associated with lower work engagement, lower effort, decreased output, less commitment to the organization, increased stress, and even increased absenteeism.


In some cases, this issue is life-threatening. The researchers found that, in simulations, surgeons were more likely to make a fatal mistake because someone insulted them before they started operating.


How to prevent this?


As a leader, it’s your responsibility to create a productive environment where your employees thrive.


Some ways to counter the impacts of rudeness in the workplace, and protect your employees’ critical thinking skills, include asking your employees’ perspectives on situations or choices, information elaboration and explaining your decision-making process in a broader way, and taking actions against rudeness and insulting behavior in the workplace.


In conclusion…


Protecting your employees from rudeness will not only help maintain a healthy workplace environment, but can prevent the breakdown of critical thinking skills and job performance.