It happens abundantly in sports, entertainment, and politics, but what about in the office? According to a recent study, the business world is also rife with trash talk and it has some interesting implications.
Jeremy Yip, a professor at Georgetown, and Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer are the authors of the study, titled “Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motivates Rivalry, Performance and Unethical Behavior.” Yip shared some highlights from their findings in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton this week, noting that the CEOs of Virgin, GM, and T-Mobile have publicly jabbed at their industry opponents.
“It’s this style of aggressive communication in competition that we explore in our paper,” Yip said.
After surveying full-time office workers at Fortune 500 companies, Yip and Schwitzer found that 57 percent had experienced monthly occurrences of trash-talking. When studying the consequences of this surprisingly prominent form of incivility, they discovered that trash talk (or more specifically, being the target of trash talk) can actually have a positive effect on productivity.
“When people are the targets of these kind of messages,” Yip explained, “What we find is that they become much more motivated. They increase their effort and the performance goes up. Indeed, one key finding of our work is that targets of trash-talking become very motivated.”
This observation held even when controlling for the financial stakes:
We’ve talked before about how workplace policies that require constant positivity on the part of employees tend to be counterproductive, attracting unwelcome scrutiny from regulators while stressing out employees and hindering constructive conflict. As technology makes it ever more possible to monitor employees’ emotional states, these new possibilities have opened up a new debate regarding how much sense it makes to try and manage employee happiness, with critics saying such efforts infringe on individual liberty to an unacceptable extent.
One employer that puts a premium on positivity is Trader Joe’s, the discount grocery chain, where a former employee has filed an unfair labor practices charge alleging that he was dismissed for his attitude not being “genuinely” positive. The New York Times‘ Noam Scheiber discussed the case late last week:
According to an unfair labor practices charge filed on Thursday with a National Labor Relations Board regional office, Thomas Nagle, a longtime employee of the Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was repeatedly reprimanded because managers judged his smile and demeanor to be insufficiently “genuine.” He was fired in September for what the managers described as an overly negative attitude.
The morale issues appear concentrated at some of the company’s largest and busiest stores, including one where a union is trying to organize. Tensions have been heightened, according to several employees, by the pressure to remain upbeat and create a “Wow customer experience,” which is defined in the company handbook as “the feelings a customer gets about our delight that they are shopping with us.” …
We’ve talked before about what makes a great team, and while there is no magic spell to create the perfect team dynamic, consistently strong teams tend to have high levels of mutual trust and respect, fostering an environment of psychological safety that enables team members to take risks in front of their colleagues. In other words, we might say that teams perform at their best when every member feels like a part of the team.
As it turns out, that sense of belonging is good for employees, too. Not only can it make them happier and more productive, Drake Baer at Science of Us flags a recent study showing that employees who have a strong connection with their team tend to have better overall well-being, including better mental and physical health:
Drawing on 58 studies of almost 20,000 employees across 15 countries, a research team lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that the more you connect with the group you work with — regardless of the industry you’re in — the better off you’ll be. It’s a matter of “social identification,” Steffens explained to Science of Us over an email, or the “sense of oneness” you feel with whatever social groups you might be a part of. …
No, employees never look like this (RawPixel/Shutterstock)
In late April, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a provision in T-Mobile’s employee handbook violated its employees’ rights to be unhappy at work:
The document included a clause about positivity, reading, in part, “[e]mployees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management.” … The NLRB’s ruling … said that requiring employees to maintain a “positive work environment” is too restrictive, as the workplace can sometimes get contentious. You can’t keep your employees from arguing. The key here is recognizing that being positive at work is good for business, but what’s good for business is not always good for labor. The NLRB says that workers have a right to express negativity at work because they have a right to be unhappy with their jobs.
At the time, Workforce‘s legal expert Jon Hyman derided the ruling as another gross overreach by the board: “Translation? Good luck writing a handbook policy that even touches employee communications that will pass muster with the NLRB.” Many employers surely agreed.
But what if the effort the NLRB nixed to enforce a “positive work environment” actually makes the environment worse? At the New Yorker this weekend, Maria Konnikova took a deeper dive into the psychology of why enforcing positivity can easily backfire:
At the Harvard Business Review, Gretchen Gavett describes a recent study in which scholars investigated the impact of a RFID-based hygiene compliance monitoring system for hospital staff, designed to make sure that they were washing their hands as frequently as health care workers are supposed to, looking to find out whether the system had an enduring impact:
First, the implementation of RFID monitoring did lead to an increase in hand hygiene compliance, particularly when managers successfully prepared their employees for its implementation. And it lasted at organizations that continued to use the technology — for almost two years before gradually dropping off. However, when RFID monitoring was completely abandoned at a number of the organizations (in many cases due to grants running out), compliance rates dropped to numbers below the rates before RFID tracking was even implemented. The habit didn’t stick — and things actually got worse.
The study’s authors aren’t 100% sure about the reasons behind this outcome. But [Kenan-Flagler Business School professor and co-author of the study] Bradley Staats posits that “the results are consistent with a story of motivational crowding out. In the simplest form, we engage in effortful activities for external outside reasons (e.g. we get paid, someone is watching) and for internal reasons (e.g. we enjoy it or doing it makes us feel competent).”