From bosses to athletes to even brands, most of us engage in trash-talking occasionally. While this critical chatter might seem like it could have only negative repercussions, it turns out it can spark those being talked about to work harder, depending on the context.
To determine the true effects of trash-talking, Wharton School visiting scholar and Georgetown professor Jeremy Yip and Wharton professor Maurice Schweitzer conducted a number of experiments. Their goal was to uncover the effects that trash-talking has on a person’s behavior, performance, motivation and competitive nature. The pair recently discussed their findings and research paper, “Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motivates Rivalry, Performance and Unethical Behavior,” in an interview (embedded below).
To Yip and Schweitzer, “trash-talking” is defined as “competitive incivility,” or “uncivil remarks or aggressive communication that is expressed between opponents.” After noticing how prevalent trash-talking is among major brands and CEOs, the professors set out to examine trash-talking in the workplace. The asked a number of full-time employees at Fortune 500 companies to recall an incident of trash-talking at work -- whether it was something they said or heard -- and a whopping 57 percent of participants admitted to trash-talking in the workplace while competing for resources or recognition.
So, with a majority of employees admitting to trash-talking, how do these harsh words affect those on the receiving end? Turns out, victims of trash-talking are actually motivated by the insulting comments. In a series of experiments, Yip and Schweitzer studied participants who completed a variety of mundane tasks such as counting letters or moving things around, only to find that when people are in a competitive situation, more trash-talking occurs.
Crude comments like, “You’re a loser. That dollar is mine or I’m going to beat you like a rented mule,” actually motivate the trash-talking target and boost his or her performance. In fact, these negative words can have such a motivational impact that people are even willing to engage in unethical behavior in order to win and prove themselves to the trash-talker.
Trash-talking also transforms a person’s view of their opponent, revving the competitive landscape and boosting that individual’s motivation to win. “Trash-talking shifts targets’ perceptions of opponents to view them as rivals, which in turn, motivates targets to compete harder and perform better on effort-based tasks,” Yip explains in the video above.
However, managers should take note that trash-talking is most effective in competitive situations, rather than cooperative ones. If there’s no competitive aspect, trash-talking has little effect on a person’s motivation to win. So, if you’re in a team setting, don’t waste your time trying to use trash-talking as a motivational tool. The researchers found that victims of trash-talking performed better in competitive settings than they did in cooperative interactions.
Trash-talking is also counterproductive when the task at hand requires creativity.
“When employees are working on routine tasks that require effort, exposing them to a trash-talking message that was said or broadcasted from their competitor may actually boost their performance,” Yip says. “But if that performance task is more cognitively demanding and involves creativity, then we would find that trash-talking may actually diminish their performance.”
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