Trash talk is most often found on a sports field rather than in the workplace, but nearly 60% of employees say they’ve either witnessed or experienced it in their office at least once a month. While it’s generally used to get in an opponent’s head and put them off their game, a new research study from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has found that it can actually help to motivate people in the workplace.

The findings were collected through a series of experiments that involved participants carrying out different mundane tasks and receiving either trash talk or more neutralised messages as they were doing them. In the tasks that were effort-based, those who were subjected to trash talking actually performed better, with the feeling of rivalry that it promoted pushing them to work harder.

“Across our studies, we demonstrate that trash talking increases the psychological stakes of competition and motivates targets to outperform their opponents,” said Jeremy Yip, one of the authors of the study. In terms of what he and the rest of the research team identified as trash talking, he specified it as “competitive incivility” which translates as “uncivil remarks or aggressive communication that is expressed between opponents”. This generally involves making boastful remarks about one’s self or insulting ones about other people.

However, employers have to be mindful of trash talking in the workplace as, alongside potentially being inappropriate for an office setting, it can be harmful to those working in a more creative field. The study found that those performing a task that required creativity fared worse when they were exposed to aggressive communication, something that would hinder a large proportion of people working in a modern-day office.

Furthermore, the presence of trash talking in cooperative situations where employees are working together towards one goal can badly impact productivity. It creates an uncomfortable environment between the employees and promotes a negative outlook on their own work. Trash talking doesn’t operate effectively outside of a competitive setting because people can become so involved in outperforming those around them that they sacrifice the quality of the work they produce.

“They’re willing to both expend constructive effort but also engage in unethical behaviour to make sure they outperform their competitor,” Maurice Schweitzer, another author of the study, pointed out. “This reaction to incivility can have severe detrimental consequences for individuals and their organizations.”

Whether trash talking has a place in the office is wholly dependent on the type of work that is carried out in the workplace, as well as the relationship that exists between co-workers. If a strong bond has formed between a group of colleagues and a playful atmosphere is the norm in their office, then trash talking may be appropriate provided that it’s done in more of a joking manner. However, this is not the case in all workplaces and steps have to be taken in order to ensure that no-one oversteps their boundaries.

“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.”

James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.
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