Guilt can be a workplace ally after rudeness, study finds

Although avoiding workplace rudeness is ideal, hard work, apologies, and increased politeness may redeem a situation.
By: | May 30, 2024

In the hustle of daily work life, it is not uncommon for stress to boil over, resulting in moments of rudeness towards colleagues. However, a new study indicated that acknowledging and embracing guilt for such behaviour can serve as a catalyst for improved workplace conduct.

The study, led by Dr Klodiana Lanaj, a professor of management at the University of Florida’s (UF) Warrington College of Business, found that employees who acted rudely towards colleagues experienced guilt, motivating them to work harder and act more politely the next day.

“We found that anyone can be rude at work because anyone can have a bad day. And you end up feeling bad,” said Dr Lanaj. “Because you feel guilty, the next day at work, you work harder, and you’re more careful not to be rude again.”

The study, comprising three separate investigations, monitored daily workplace habits and asked participants to recall instances of their own rudeness. Results indicated that employees who exhibited rude behaviour, such as shouting or excluding coworkers, experienced guilt and tended to vent to their parents at home. This emotional response led them to be more industrious and less rude the next day, suggesting a self-correcting cycle.

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Daniel Kim, a UF doctoral student and co-author of the study, added, “When you’re being uncivil, it comes back to hurt you as well. Guilt is this complex phenomenon. It’s burdensome, but it can also help us recover by reducing incivility and engaging more at work.”

The researchers acknowledged that the ideal scenario is to avoid rudeness altogether, as it can harm others and disrupt workplace harmony. Nevertheless, they offer reassurance that individuals can redeem themselves through corrective actions such as working harder, apologising, and displaying greater politeness.