Leaders: Here's the Best time to Trash-Talk

BY Kathy Crosett
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Remember the bully from elementary school who talked trash about how he was going to beat you up? This kind of mouthing off goes on in the corporate world, too, often in terms of a competitor. In a recent podcast, Jeremy Yip, Wharton, and Maurice Schweitzer, Georgetown University, discussed their research on trash-​talking and how it impacts employee performance.

We all know most aggressive and uncivil communications in the workplace occur in the context of a competitor. We want our competitiors to believe that we have the better product or service, and that we’ll crush them in the marketplace. The problem with these kinds of communications, generally more pervasive in the worlds of sports and politics, is that they can easily get out of control.

Trash-​talking about your competitor might serve as a rallying cry for your team members to come together and work hard. You want them to bring the best possible product to market as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy for some managers to turn that negative energy inward. The Yip and Schweitzer research indicates that “57% of [the] employees indicated that trash-​talking occurs on a monthly basis or more often.” These employees worked in offices at Fortune 500 companies and heard the disparaging comments directed at others in their workplace.

Because trash-​talking is perceived as a threat, the intended employee will likely react with a typical flight or fight response. Before you know it, your departments could be at war with one another, competing for scarce resources and negatively impacting their team members. Or your department heads may refuse to speak to each other, which grinds productivity to a halt.

Is there ever a time when trash-​talking works? Yes. The researchers also found that, in a competitive environment, which demands low cognitive resources, trash-​talking can boost performance. However, employees who work at creative or more cognitively-​challenging tasks can experience a drop in performance when exposed to trash-talking.

Before you engage in trash-​talking, think carefully about your organization, the nature of the work your team members perform, and how this action will impact your culture.