Academia is full of grumps. There’s the professor berating a student’s thesis defense. There are the passive aggressive remarks shared among faculty. And, of course, there are the heckles of the peanut gallery during academic presentations.
Disrespectful behavior is not unusual for the University, though. Hospitals run on a “culture of intimidation,” according to “Medical Disrespect,” an article in Aeon magazine by Ilana Yurkiewicz. The behavior of this intimidating culture results in “increased errors, lower quality of care and lower patient satisfaction.”
Top law firms and businesses understand disrespectful behavior causes work ethic, quality and performance to deteriorate, according to the Harvard Business Review. Bullying just isn’t worth it.
Some people are just jerks. Everyone has bad days. But when the atmosphere strengthens and thrives on harmful behavior, it is a moral obligation for us to fight it.
Rudeness, bullying, aggressiveness and other disrespectful behavior hurts. We often feel abused, humiliated or worse about ourselves. And over time, the culture progressively pervades even through students. It’s most painful to watch my own friends beat our chests in intimidating aggression towards one another.
According to Advancing Science, Serving Society, students avoid science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees due to the “unwelcoming atmosphere.” This could be especially prominent among minorities, women and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Students become afraid to ask questions during class, explore new and challenging fields or ask for help.
The problem is simple: when aggression trickles down, information can’t circulate. We can’t communicate properly, according to Yurkiewicz.
Unfortunately, those who engage in the rudeness are often rewarded. Everyone knows the stereotypical CEO: a greedy, egocentric, cynical über-jerk striking fear in the hearts of his inferiors. In many ways, professors succumb to these attitudes as well. According to Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton, we’ve been trained to see unkind people as clever, competent and knowledgeable. The rudeness becomes a form of “cultural capital,” according to thesiswhisperer.com.
Jerks get attention, whether it’s at panels or conferences. Others — from students to faculty — mimic them, and no one intervenes. We become toxic, and the cycle continues.
We’re left with the sentiment of “if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen.” When being a jerk is the norm, we try to hide our niceness.
But we’re really hiding our true thoughts and feelings.
Burnout and mental disease are on the rise. We lose hours of sleep and push ourselves to insane limits. We compete against each other in an increasingly uncertain, stressful world. We face pressure to perform not only well, but also better than the people around us. It’s no surprise we struggle with these behavior issues everyday.
Having said that, we must allow criticism when appropriate. But we should remain steadfast against disrespectful behavior.
Let’s break the vicious cycle. At all hierarchical levels, we should stop preserving dignity by looking away, copying destructive behavior and appealing to the “disrespect” system. Instead, we can encourage and reward good behavior. We can provide methods of expressing ourselves and identifying destructive behavior as it arises. We can foster a more productive, safe environment for everyone.