Are people too rude in the workplace, or are employees being too sensitive?

I once had a manager who dreaded when she had to call a particular employee — not me, I'm glad to say — into her office.

This manager was the best I've ever had, showing dedication to and genuine caring for her team while also setting high standards and actively trying to help us meet them.

In other words, she wasn't the kind of manager who was purposely rude or nasty to her direct reports.

Nonetheless, it seemed that this particular employee often was reduced to tears when she was called in by our manager for some gentle guidance or correction. This was, obviously, hard on both the employee and the manager, and it made their relationship challenging.

So the question is, was my manager too rude to this employee? Or was the employee too sensitive?

This relationship came to mind as I read the many responses to my recent column on the costs of rudeness in the workplace.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that half of the workers who were surveyed in a 2011 study said they were treated rudely in the office at least once a week, up from a quarter in 1998. I also outlined the practical business costs that resulted from such rudeness.

I wrote at the time that beating boorish behavior in the workplace was a task for all of us and that it started with following the Golden Rule of treating others as we'd like to be treated.

Many readers responded by telling me about the rudeness they had witnessed or experienced in different jobs. Typical were the comments emailed to me by a reader named Mark, who said his master's degree in leadership and management didn't teach him that the Golden Rule only works "if everyone else is you."

Mark was caught off guard, he wrote, when his boss told him that an abusive co-worker was about to be his new boss.

"The message came loud and clear: 'nice guys finish last.' At this point it was much too late to change my nice-guy approach," Mark wrote. "I performed as I had been taught only to find myself a ‘caddy, so to speak,’ for an obnoxious, defensive guy who never liked me. All my complaints to management fell upon deaf ears. I was told, 'That’s just the way he is,' as if his undesirable behavior was some kind of diversity I should have embraced.

"Upon dragging myself out from under the bus I came to realize that his Golden Rule was very different from my own. ... I was left to only wish I had ignored all I had been taught about teamwork and instead trampled him on my way up. My point: Rudeness in the workplace is often the result of shortsighted upper-management actions or failure to act. ...

"In the end we must all do more than follow the Golden Rule. Instead, we must learn to 'walk a mile in another's moccasins' before we act. And when we act, we must have the spine to state our position and to actually lead."

Those are some great points, Mark, and I agree especially with your closing point about the importance of empathy, which is helpful for anyone who is trying to work with others. Thanks for your ideas.

Another interesting email came from a reader named John. While he agrees that we should fight against rudeness in the workplace, he suggested that the statistical rise noted in the survey could be at least partially due to heightened sensitivity.

"In 1998 the majority of working Americans were raised in a time where only the top three competitors of any competition received awards, no matter their age," John wrote. "I remember being pretty heartbroken losing the championship game in peewee baseball, especially when the other team bragged about it. But I also knew, even at that young age, that we played really hard and was proud of that. ...

"I didn't research this, but, as I remember it, starting in the late '80s or early '90s, a movement swept through nearly every youth organization and elementary school contending that competition was not healthy for children. Scores were no longer kept. Championships were either not held or, regardless of who won, everyone got a prize or a trophy because, as we've heard many times: everyone's special. Well, if we're all winners and all special, we'll be much more sensitive to anyone who implies that we're not, which could very well equate to 'rude behavior.' ...

"I would love to see the results of this research according to age. I contend that if the results were quantified according to those who were already in the workforce in 1998 and those who entered the workforce after 1998, the statistical difference would be very clear."

This was the email that made me think of my former manager. I would be shocked if she had been rude to the team member who tended to cry, so I've always felt that my colleague was just overly sensitive.

However, you could make the case that rudeness is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. I'm guessing that former colleague felt she had been treated shabbily by the manager, which led to her tears.

Some behavior is so obviously obnoxious that almost any person would feel mistreated as a result of it. But I'm willing to accept there may be a gray area here. After all, everyone is different, and, as Mark pointed out, we may not all see the Golden Rule the same way.

What do you think? Is the workplace really a ruder place now than it was 10 or 15 years ago? Have we all become overly sensitive and too quick to take offense? Or are the survey results due to some combination of these two factors?

Send me your ideas, and I'll mention some of them when I revisit this topic in a future column.

In the meantime, even if you think people are too sensitive nowadays, I still believe it never hurts to keep that Golden Rule in mind. A little kindness can go a long way.

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