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Though guys like to yell

The emotional climate of an organization impacts the willingness of people to work there. If managers, who are responsible for creating this climate, manage by aggression, the organization may lose not only great specialists, but also the image of a good employer, explains Doctor Magdalena Łużniak-Piecha, social psychologist and lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University.

It has been 47 years since the publication of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. This means that currently the third generation of management specialists works according to the rules of the occupational safety and health rules. So theoretically by now, our offices and organizations should constitute oases of effective communication and efficient organization, where employees feel safe. They should also be conducive to employees’ professional and personal development. Theoretically.

Emotional climate in organizations

However, the management practice related to the emotional climate, observed by researchers Monika Stawiarska-Lietzau and Magdalena Łużniak-Piecha („Krzyczeć czy nie krzyczeć - styl komunikacji menedżerskiej a efektywność pracy", Edukacja Ekonomistów i Menedżerów [“To yell or not to yeall - managerial communication style and work effectiveness”] Education of Economists and Managers) indicates that the reality is somewhat different. Business psychologists define emotional climate as a group perception of emotion predominant in a given place. In other words, employees and clients share their observations related to emotions induced by a given place, for example: “From the moment you enter, you feel the heavy atmosphere” or “It is always so nice in here”. Very often, members of an organization are able to point out the source of the good or bad atmosphere. They know who usually spoils the mood and who can always diffuse tension. Besides, team members do not have to literally share their feelings. After a while, a comment like: “Of course, Jack and his remarks...” is sufficient.

One of the pathologies of emotion management is an aggressive communication style, which some managers regard as an effective management tool. Many managers still believe that if they don’t yell at employees, the employees won’t understand.

Tough guys value boorishness

One of the pathologies of emotion management is an aggressive and boorish communication style, which some managers regard as an effective management tool. Recently at one of the universities, students of an elite management program discussed the merits of yelling at employees. Students - the soon-to-be managers - emphatically and loudly defended the view that if you do not yell at subordinates, they will not understand. Does it mean that employees suffer from a chronic hearing loss?

In 2010, M.P. Shane-Joyce and R.L. Bell, who studied communication behaviors and rudeness at the workplace (Communication practices of managers and the predictability of uncivil communication in response. International Journal of Business and Public Administration, 7-2), concluded that: “Undoubtedly, many managers do not even know that their communication style, whether it is yelling, shouting, or cursing at employees is a form of workplace violence and could be precursors to violence.”

Of course, rude behavior at work may be perceived as a symptom of a tough-guy organizational culture, unfortunately it instantly spreads onto the overall relations between employees, which subsequently is immediately noticed by customers. Today, the main commodity delivered by companies is service and market success depends on the quality of service, team work of employees and employee loyalty towards the employer, including the time after hours, i.e. what employees say at the pub or what they publish on Facebook. Customers come back, if they see employees who identify with the employers, who like their jobs, because “a civil workplace is also good for the customers, since the quality of the service they receive from happier and more relaxed service providers is improved”.

When emotions go to war

Who are these boorish aggressors creating negative emotional cultures? In psychology they are called “toxic co-workers” and they are defined as people who are not able to cope with their emotoins. Therefore, they are brusque, short-tempered and they tend to distort communication, i.e. they perceive messages through the lens of their own point of view and expectations, which often is different from the intensions of their interlocutor. In other words, a simple information, such as: “I cannot do this for you right now, because I am busy with something else” may be interpreted as a declaration of war. Additionally, they usually react with an emotional intensity akin to war rather than a simple and justified answer, even if it is a rejection.

Obviously, this type of behavior closes the way to effective collaboration, achieving organizational goals and completing projects. A tendency to rude behavior may also be linked with passive aggression. Passive aggressive people do not openly express their anger, but they sulk forever and they sabotage the efforts of the team. For example, they stop answering e-mails of the person who upset them and/or they “forget” to copy that person on the team e-mails. Over time, these types of attitudes are perceived by the team members as negative, especially that, to a large degree, they impede effective working. After all, the main responsibility of the manager is to coordinate work not to disorganize it. As the result, the co-workers might establish a norm: we will do it ourselves, because nobody wants another row with X. In consequence, the omitted manager’s belief that he or she cannot trust anyone and nobody listens to him or her, becomes justified. Unfortunately, the situation has been caused by the manager in the first place, although he or she is rarely aware that they have become victims of their own behavior.

The emotional climate introduced to the team by an aggressive and boorish manager has a negative impact on employee health. In the course of their research (Perceived violence climate: A new construct and its relationship to workplace physical violence and verbal aggression, Work & Stress, 21-2) Paul Spector and his team discovered not only the decline in psychological wellbeing of employees, subjected to verbal aggression, but also noticed that being a victim of this type of aggression is stronger co-related with symptoms of anxiety and depression than in the case of physical abuse. Moreover, employees of organizations with negative emotional climate experience tension and mood decline even if they do not experience direct aggression, but are mere observes of such acts of violence.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

The price for managers’ boorish and aggressive behavior is paid not only by employees, but also by the whole organization. In the above noted studies, Łużniak-Piecha and Stawiarska-Lietazu showed that verbal aggression leads to the decrease in employee engagement and their identification with the organization and their professional roles. The employer brand significantly fades in the eyes of the employees and they begin to look for jobs elsewhere. The ability to notice and to support common team goals as well as the identification with organizational values also decreases. In short, the image of the employer becomes unequivocally negative in the eyes of employees.

The employees often, even after they have left the organization, become the so-called negative ambassadors of the brand, which means that they discourage others from using the products or services offered by the previous employer and they express negative opinions about the company they left.

Paradoxically overtime, the boorish managers do deal with employees, who do not want to do anything of their own accord, who do not display any initiative and who spend the day looking for new jobs, because their loyalty towards the current employer is almost non-existent. This phenomenon is called a self-fulfilling prophecy, however not many managers are aware that they themselves have caused this situation.

While summarizing our discussion about the aggressive style of managerial communication, we should ask why managers use aggression, when there is abundant proof that this type of behavior is ineffective. Boorish outbursts are usually an expression of helplessness. If the managers do not have any other management or authority building tools and must use aggression, it means that they are poorly prepared for the managerial role. People who are confident in their competencies do not behave in a rude way. Why would they? They are interested in doing their jobs well and in completing projects in an effective way, not in displaying their bad moods.

Actions and behaviors that successfully poison the emotional climate of an organization

  • Irony and rhetorical questions that include criticism: “Really? You do not see any solution to this problem? Do I have to point it out to you?”
  • Threats, often hidden between the lines:
    “We do not have to work with you, we can always find someone else to do your job.”
  • Ordering people around:
    “I do not have to explain myself. I’ve already said what I think!”
  • Patronizing and sarcasm:
    “It is as simple as creating a folder on the shared drive and saving the files there. I recommend this method. It is easy to find everything there.”
  • Arguing with opinions of co-workers in a way suggesting that if someone thinks differently than the manager, they are incompetent/not engaged/unprofessional, so not qualified to express their view:
    “I expected comments of a higher caliber”.

The same situations may be approached without rudeness, but more effectively instead:

  • Instruct employees clearly:
    “The information we need is in the XXX database. Please use these templates in the future.”
  • Correct the actions of employees taking into consideration the cause of the problem and offering help in solving it:
    “Which aspect of our cooperation is the most difficult and why? What do you think?”
  • Formulate tasks clearly and professionally:
    “Could you please deliver the X report by seven. We will need it for the meeting with Y.”
  • Use partner communication:
    “Mary, please review the most recent version of document X and give me your comments. I am attaching the document again for your convenience.”
  • Express your disagreement with an employee in a way highlighting your readiness for discussion:
    “Ok, at this point I see it in a different way, but walk me through your way of thinking.”

The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/17”.
Magazine available here »

magdalena Łużniak piecha

About the Author

Magdalena Łużniak-Piecha, Ph.D. - social psychologist, lecturer in management and leadership at SWPS University. Collaborates with Polish University Abroad (PUNO) in London and with the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico. Develops and implements gaming techniques in training, consulting and research practice. Researches and helps to eradicate organizational pathologies. She is especially interested in the techniques of coping with personality pathologies and communication breakdowns in organizations.

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