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A few simple (but overlooked) suggestions for leaders to deter mistreatment at work

When interpersonal relationships at work deteriorate, it can lead to rudeness, ostracism, bullying, and abuse. These types of mistreatment cost organizations billions each year due to employee absences and lost productivity. Other estimates suggest that handling a single incident of mistreatment can cost an organization more than $30,000. Fortunately, there are several strategies managers can use to prevent, address, and reduce workplace mistreatment. Research shows, for instance, that leaders should model good behavior, provide training and workshops to improve interpersonal relationships, and establish norms to build a culture of kindness and respect.

These strategies are intuitive because mistreatment, at its core, is about interpersonal relationships. After all, when we are mistreated, we are likely to think it’s because the person is a jerk or because we don’t click with them. Indeed, most organizational research focuses on how mistreatment is driven by personal characteristics and dysfunctional relationships. But workplace mistreatment isn’t only about the people and the culture; it can also occur due to factors in the physical environment. Studies show, for instance, that mistreatment can be prompted by crowded spaces, loud noises, uncomfortable temperatures, and unpleasant odors. These factors are often overlooked by managers because their impact isn’t always obvious or expected. But the research is clear: As temperatures rise, noise levels climb, and bad smells arise, people are more likely to engage in various types of aggressive behavior, including yelling at and insulting others.

There’s an old saying in management research that “the people make the place.” But when it comes to workplace mistreatment, it’s also important to recognize that the place makes the people.

There’s an old saying in management research that “the people make the place.” But when it comes to workplace mistreatment, it’s also important to recognize that the place makes the people. So when making efforts to deter and address mistreatment, managers should follow all the usual advice. But they should also make sure to keep the noise down, the temperature comfortable, and the air smelling fresh. These simple steps aren’t just common courtesies; they’ll also enhance the courtesy that employees show one another.

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Shannon G. Taylor, PhD is a professor of management at the University of Central Florida, where he teaches and researches leadership and workplace mistreatment. Follow him on LinkedIn.


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