Attempts to inspire employees with your best General Patton speech can have some destructive consequences, new research finds.
Bosses who try to motivate their workers with violent rhetoric, such as when Apple's Steve Jobs declared "thermonuclear war" on Samsung, end up provoking rival employees to play dirty, according to a Brigham Young University (BYU) study.
David Wood, a BYU professor of accounting and one of the study's authors, said business executives use violent language, like "we're going to war" or "we're going to kill the competition," quite regularly.
"This study shows they should think twice about what they're saying," Wood said in a statement.
As part of the study, researchers showed half of the 269 participants a message from a CEO that read, "I am declaring war on the competition in an effort to increase our market share. I want you to fight for every customer and do whatever it takes to win this battle." The message went on to say that the employees with the best sales would receive a free trip to Hawaii.
The other group of participants got the same message, but with the words "war," "fight" and "battle" replaced by "all-out effort," "compete" and "competition," respectively. The study's authors then assessed the subjects' likelihood to engage in unethical behavior.
Researchers found that when the source of violent rhetoric was the rival CEO, employees were significantly more likely to post fake negative reviews and ratings about the competition.
"What's disconcerting is that people don't think they're being unethical in these situations," Wood said. "You can't just say, 'OK people, you need to be better now; don't be bad,' because they don't think they're being bad."
In the second part of the study, the researchers tested whether participants would bend internal sales policies to boost sales figures after receiving an email from their own boss. Again, half of the subjects received a message with violent rhetoric.
The results once again showed that the use of violent rhetoric by leadership impacted the ethical decision making of the employees; however, in this case, it was for the better.
Unlike the first study, in which rival employees were motivated to bend the rules, the second experiment revealed that workers were less likely to make unethical decisions when the violent speeches came from their own superiors.
Josh Gubler, a political-science professor and co-author of the study, said that while there has been a lot of research on the effects of violence and violent media on aggressive behavior, the research shows it goes much further than that.
"It affects your willingness to lie and to cheat and to bend moral rules," Gubler said. "There are serious implications for CEOs."
The study, co-authored by The George Washington University's Nathan Kalmoe, was published earlier this year in the Journal of Business Ethics.
Originally published on Business News Daily.