Why Do People Behave Badly?

Bob Kagey


Why Do People Behave Badly?In the midst of the Olympic competition I received a request to help a company create a more respectful workplace.  As is usually the case when we get a request to address incivility in the workplace, there is unacceptable behavior that demands attention.  Often it is the “straw that broke the camel’s back”.  Typically the problem has been building for months or even years and has been ignored.  

As I watched the many Olympic events, I was impressed with the degree of civility and the respect between athletes, teams and even countries even though there was great stress on individual to perform in the most competitive situations.   Oh, of course, there were some bad behaviors such as the blow to the face in a soccer game or the dour expression of a gymnast who failed to win gold; but, these incidents were few and most often minor. 

So, I ask myself, “Why do people behave badly?”  There can be a multitude of reasons for disrespectful behavior but I generally find the simplest explanation is the best.  So here is my conclusion – people behave badly because it works for them.  They get what they want – recognition, feeling superior, less accountability, power, etc.  Bad behavior did not work in the Olympics; in fact, quite the opposite.  Athletes were quickly “called out” for any small infraction.  The culture of the Olympics sets an expectation of the highest order of civility.  Peers, coaches, commentators and even parents tend to quickly “call people out” on their bad behavior.  There is no reward for rudeness and incivility.

So, what can companies learn from the Olympics?  All employees should be encouraged to speak out when they see disrespectful behavior.   Management should encourage and vigorously support employees’ efforts to ask that a bad behavior stop, whether it is unacceptable language, intolerant behavior, gossiping or intimidation.  Small steps in confronting incivility can lead to positive changes in a company’s culture.

Dr. Robert Kagey, a clinical psychologist, is a co-founder of Comprehensive EAP. He has extensive experience developing innovative approaches to fostering healthy, respectful and productive work environments.