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Does 'Trash Talk' Actually Motivate Employees to Work Harder?

Does 'Trash Talk' Actually Motivate Employees to Work Harder?
Credit: Nelen/Shutterstock

While trash talking is often used to get an opponent off their game in a sports setting, it often serves to motivate employees when used in the workplace, new research finds.

The study, from researchers at the The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered that trash talking motivates those it is targeted at in ways that those dishing out the smack talk failed to predict.

"Trash talkers need to recognize that they are unintentionally boosting their targets' motivation and performance," the study's authors wrote.

For the study, the researchers defined trash talking as aggressive communication, such as boastful remarks about one's self or insulting remarks about an opponent. This type of discussion usually occurs before or during a competition.

"We conceptualize trash talking as competitive incivility," said Jeremy Yip, one of the study's authors and a Wharton visiting scholar and Georgetown University professor, in a podcast with Knowledge@Wharton, the school's online business journal. "That is, uncivil remarks or aggressive communication that is expressed between opponents."

For their research, the study's authors conducted a series of experiments and a pilot study. Overall, the researchers found that nearly 60 percent of employees say they witness or experience trash talking in their office at least once a month. [Have rude co-workers? How they can make you rude too]

In the experiments, researchers had participants complete various mundane tasks, such as counting letters or moving sliders, during which they received either trash talking or more neutral messages.

The study's authors found that in effort-based tasks, participants who received trash-talking messages outperformed those who didn't. They also discovered that trash talking triggers perceptions of rivalry, which also affects how much effort participants put into a task.

"Across our studies, we demonstrate that trash talking increases the psychological stakes of competition and motivates targets to outperform their opponents," Yip said in the podcast.

Extra motivation and improved performance weren't the only effects trash talking had, however. In some cases, like when a creative task was involved, it resulted in the victims of trash talking performing worse than those who weren't subjected to the aggressive communication.

"We find that trash talking harms creative performance," the study's authors wrote.

In addition, trash talking can spur unethical behavior. Maurice Schweitzer, one of the study's authors and a Wharton professor, said they found that people care so much about outperforming the person who is trash talking them that they will sometimes do whatever it takes to win.

"They’re willing to both expend constructive effort but also engage in unethical behavior to make sure they outperform their competitor," Schweitzer said in the podcast.

The study also revealed that while trash talking can be a motivator for employees in competitive situations, it can have much more damaging effects in cooperative settings. The researchers said performance can be hurt when trash talking occurs between people who are working together.

"What’s interesting is that trash talking can be very destructive in a cooperative setting, whereas it's motivating in a competitive setting," Schweitzer said in the podcast.

Knowing that trash talking can have different impacts depending on the situation, the researchers believe employers need to think long and hard about when they use, or allow, it.

"Organizational norms regarding trash talking are likely to vary widely, and we urge managers to think deliberately and strategically about the use of trash talking within their organization and between organizations," the study's authors wrote.

"For example, managers should think carefully about the types of tasks employees perform and how trash talking may boost performance on effort-based tasks but harm performance on cognitively demanding or creative tasks."

In addition, employers should keep a close eye on those who are targets of trash talking to ensure they stay within the lines of what's ethical.

"Our work reveals that targets of competitive incivility are more likely to cheat in order to outperform their uncivil opponents," the researchers wrote. "This reaction to incivility can have severe detrimental consequences for individuals and their organizations."

The study, which was also co-authored by Wharton professor Samir Nurmohamed, will appear in an upcoming issue of the Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions Processes journal.

Chad Brooks

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years in media. A 1998 journalism graduate of Indiana University, Chad began his career with Business News Daily in 2011 as a freelance writer. In 2014, he joined the staff full time as a senior writer. Before Business News Daily, Chad spent nearly a decade as a staff reporter for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, covering a wide array of topics including local and state government, crime, the legal system and education. Chad has also worked on the other side of the media industry, promoting small businesses throughout the United States for two years in a public relations role. His first book, How to Start a Home-Based App Development Business, was published in 2014. He lives with his wife and daughter in the Chicago suburbs.