Trash-talking in Business
  • Managing people

Trash-talking in Business

Competitive incivility may motivate performance but it causes rivalry and unethical behaviour


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While there have been the numerous advances in workplace behaviour over the past decades – an increased focus on ethical behaviour, diversity, and respect across hierarchies – common civility seems to be in decline.

This is partly societal, reflecting both our less deferential attitudes towards others and other cultural factors, however in business there appears to have been a conscious trend towards applying incivility, in the form of ‘trash-talking’, to gain competitive edge.

Recent research by professors Maurice Schweitzer, Samir Nurmohamed of The Wharton School, and Georgetown professor Jeremy Yip, considers this trend and finds that while trash-talking increases effort in competitive interactions, is decreases effort in cooperative interactions, and can harm performance when the performance task involves creativity.

“Liston even smells like a bear. I'm gonna give him to the local zoo after I whup him." Mohammed Ali, before beating Sonny ‘The Big Bear’ Liston in 1964.

From boxing to cricket making insulting and boastful remarks in order to demoralize or humiliate a sporting opponent has become commonplace. To some extent it adds to the fun and it can inspire better performance – from the trasher and the trashed. Trash-talking is, of course, rife in politics, but it also features quite prominently in organizational life.

Trash-talking can be used in business as a marketing device, with examples including: Virgin Atlantic flying a banner over the stalled London Eye, a project backed by British Airways, with the slogan “BA can’t get it up!!”; or Dan Akerson, as CEO of GM saying of the Mercedes C class “They call it C class because it’s very average.”

Trash-talking is also prevalent in the workplace. In surveying full-time office workers at Fortune 500 companies, Schweitzer, Nurmohamed and Yip found that a surprising 57% of employees indicated that trash-talking occurred on a monthly basis or more often in their workplace. Their research focuses on the consequences of trash-talking, in particular what happens to the person who’s receiving it. They found that, although people don’t necessarily anticipate trash-talking having a motivational effect, it did. In fact, the research consistently shows that targets of trash-talking become very motivated.

Primarily this is because people expend considerable effort to outperform the person who’s trash-talking them. Performance is particularly enhanced where effort-based tasks take place in competitive interactions, to the extent that sometimes people become so motivated they engage in unethical behaviour to win.

However, in situations where cooperation is required the targets of trash-talking perform poorly, and when tasks require creativity, the researchers found that trash-talking is actually disruptive and reduces performance.

As a whole, these research findings reveal that trash-talking is a common workplace behaviour that can foster rivalry and motivate both constructive and destructive behaviour. So, business leaders need to be aware of this and consequently more careful in how incivility is tolerated in their organizations.

Schweitzer, Nurmohamed and Yip recommend that trash-talkers are encouraged to engage in deeper perspective-taking so that they are able to gauge what the interpersonal consequences are for their rude behaviour. And, that business leaders be aware of the different effects on behaviour that trash-talking can have; thinking carefully about when to expose their employees to trash-talking and understanding that when tasks are cognitively demanding, require collaboration, or involve creativity, trash-talking may actually diminish performance.

This article is adapted with permission from Knowledge@Wharton (, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Listen to Schweitzer, Nurmohamed and Yip describing their research in this 12 minute video:

Read the full research paper: Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motivates Rivalry, Performance, and Unethical Behavior

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