In 2000, British Airways sponsored the construction of the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel in the heart of London. When the builders encountered some technical difficulties while trying to erect the wheel, Richard Branson, the mercurial founder of rival airline Virgin Atlantic Airways, seized the opportunity. He arranged for a blimp to fly over the London Eye with a giant banner that read ‘‘BA can’t get it up!”
Though executives are acutely attuned to the role of competition in the workplace, far less attention has been paid to the role of competitive communication — trash-talking. Our research has studied what happens when individuals, managers, and CEOs mock their competitors and how it can influence motivation and performance.
Trash-talking is pervasive in organizations. When we surveyed office employees at Fortune 500 companies, we found that 57% of the employees reported that trash-talking occurs on a monthly basis.
incivility. More precisely, we define trash-talking as boastful comments about the self or insulting comments about an opponent that are delivered by a competitor before or during competition. For example, when Dan Akerson, former CEO of General Motors, announced that his company would be launching a new car that would compete against Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class line, he said “They call it C class because it’s very average.”
To understand the interpersonal consequences of trash-talking, we conducted two pilot studies and six controlled experiments. In our experiments, we randomly assigned participants to interact with neutral opponents or trash-talkers through an instant messaging platform. We then assessed their perceptions, performance, and behavior.
Our main finding was that trash-talking increases the psychological stakes of competition. Whereas we might naturally see each other as mere competitors, when we start trash-talking each other, we come to see each other as rivals. As a result, we found that trash-talking boosted motivation and productivity. Specifically, targets of trash-talking worked harder and accomplished far more in a competition — even when they worked for the same economic stakes.
Trash-talking, however, can also harm the target. Because trash-talking boosts motivation and the drive to defeat an opponent, it can also promote the use of unethical behavior. We found that when individuals were paired with trash-talking opponents instead of neutral opponents, they were almost twice as likely to cheat on a performance task involving unscrambling anagrams. Competitors become so focused on winning that they become more likely to cut corners on their path to victory.
Furthermore, we found that trash-talking undermines creativity. Individuals who are targets of trash-talking are highly motivated, but they are also distracted. After exposing individuals to trash-talking, we assessed their creative insight. We found that 52% of competitors exhibited divergent thinking when interacting with a neutral opponent, but only 37% of competitors demonstrated divergent thinking when interacting with trash-talking opponents. If the task at hand required careful thought, they were simply less capable of accomplishing creative work than they were before the trash-talking episode.
As a manager, does this mean you should trash-talk your employees to make them more productive? No, don’t do it. We contrasted the effects of trash-talking in competitive interactions with the effects of incivility in cooperative interactions. We found that when you trash-talk an opponent, your opponent performs better. However, when you make uncivil remarks to a teammate, your teammate performs worse. In both cases, when you are a target of aggression, you become motivated to punish. Targets can retaliate in competition by performing better, whereas targets retaliate in cooperation by sabotaging performance.
As managers, should you ever expose your employees to trash-talking messages from rival firms? Perhaps. If you share trash-talking messages that were delivered by a competitor, you could boost your employees’ motivation. But keep in mind that this boost in motivation will help most when the nature of the work requires persistence — for mechanical tasks. In this regard, trash-talking can be used as a motivational tool. However, these same trash-talking messages may prove disruptive for creative tasks, and they may prove to be particularly harmful when you need to make sure your employees do not cut ethical corners.
And what about trash-talking a competitor? In this case, you should be concerned about boosting your competitor’s motivation and transforming a mere competitor into an intense rival. But there are potential benefits. In addition to potentially disrupting their focus, the act of trash-talking a competitor may help you bond with your team, as you face off against a common enemy.
Finally, leaders should be careful to model the organizational culture that they aspire to create. What you say and what you post on social media can profoundly shape how your organization and others view the competitive landscape. You should be mindful and monitor how your employees communicate. And when you find trash-talking in your workplace, you should make sure the competitive flames fueled by trash-talking do not get fanned into flames that go wild.