How Trash-talking Affects Performance

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Wharton's Jeremy Yip and Maurice Schweitzer discuss the findings of their research paper on trash-talking.

Athletes do it. CEOs do it. People in the office and home do it. Trash-talking is as natural as breathing to some people. But how does it affect those who are the targets of such biting insults? That’s the question Wharton visiting scholar and Georgetown professor Jeremy Yip and Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton operations, information and decisions professor, set out to answer in their latest research, “Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motivates Rivalry, Performance and Unethical Behavior.” The paper, which was also authored by Wharton management professor Samir Nurmohamed, will be published in the Organizational Behavior and Human Decisions Processes journal. They joined Knowledge@Wharton to discuss their findings.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Tell us about the premise of your paper.

Jeremy Yip: We’re the first to provide an initial conceptualization of trash-talking and some empirical evidence of the interpersonal effects of trash-talking on competitive behavior. We often think about trash-talking in the forum of sports and politics, but it features quite prominently in organizational life.

I’ll give you an example: To celebrate the new millennium, the city of London constructed the London Eye, a giant Ferris wheel that sits on the shore of the River Thames. While you may be familiar with the London Eye, what you might not know is that they had British Airways sponsor the construction. In the final stages of construction as they erected the London Eye into place, they encountered some technical difficulties.

Richard Branson, the [founder] of Virgin Atlantic Airways, decided to capitalize on the misfortune of one of its key competitors and broadcasted a message intended to humiliate British Airways. He had Virgin Atlantic arrange a blimp to fly over the construction site of the London Eye with a giant banner that read, “BA can’t get it up!!” This public insult intensified a long-standing competition between British Airways and Virgin Atlantic. It’s this style of aggressive communication in competition that we explore in our paper.

Knowledge@Wharton: How would you define trash-talking?

Yip: We conceptualize trash-talking as competitive incivility. That is, uncivil remarks or aggressive communication that is expressed between opponents. More specifically, we define trash-talking as boastful comments about the self or insulting remarks about competitors that are delivered by a competitor, typically before or during a competition.

What’s interesting is that trash-talking also pervades corporate America. I’ll give you a couple of examples of CEOs trash talking. One example is from Dan Akerson, who was the CEO of GM. He announced that GM was going to launch a rear-wheel drive car that would compete directly with the Mercedes C class. When asked what he thought about Mercedes, he said, “They call it C class because it’s very average.” John Legere, the CEO of T-Mobile, is another example. He ripped into one of his competitors, AT&T, when he said, “I see more honesty in a Match.com ad than AT&T’s coverage maps.”

But how prevalent is trash-talking in the workplace? To initiate our study, we conducted a pilot study in which we recruited full-time office workers at Fortune 500 companies and asked them to recall an incident where they heard or said a boastful or insulting remark at work while competing for resources or recognition. We received a variety of different incidences that they recalled, but most interestingly, we found that 57% of the employees indicated that trash-talking occurs on a monthly basis or more often.

Knowledge@Wharton: That’s a very surprising statistic. Prof. Schweitzer, can you talk more about your pilot study and the experiments that went into it?

Maurice Schweitzer: This topic is really pervasive. We see trash-talking around us. What we set out to do was to look at the consequences of trash-talking, in particular what happens to the person who’s receiving it. In another pilot study that we ran, we found that people don’t anticipate trash-talking having a motivational effect. But in fact, very consistently in our studies, we find that targets of trash-talking become very motivated.

[In our experiments,] we have people doing some pretty mundane things, whether it’s counting letters or moving sliders. When people have to exert effort within a competition, some people engage in trash-talking, such as “You’re a loser. That dollar is mine or I’m going to beat you like a rented mule.” When people are the targets of these kind of messages, what we find is that they become much more motivated. They increase their effort and the performance goes up. Indeed, one key finding of our work is that targets of trash-talking become very motivated.

“We conceptualize trash-talking as competitive incivility.” –Jeremy Yip

We ran some other studies to show that sometimes they become even so motivated they’re likely to engage in unethical behavior to win. So, what people care about is outperforming this person who’s trash-talking them. They’re willing to both expend constructive effort but also engage in unethical behavior to make sure they outperform their competitor.

… In addition to these constructive effects, when we looked at a creative task, we found that trash-talking is actually disruptive. So it motivates us, but it’s also distracting. Targets of trash-talking were less successful completing a creative task than were people who weren’t targets.

[Yip: Across our studies, we demonstrate that trash-talking increases the psychological stakes of competition, and motivates targets to outperform their opponents.

We found that participants in a competition who were targets of trash-talking outperformed participants who faced the same economic incentives, but were not targets of trash-talking. Perceptions of rivalry explain the effect of trash-talking on performance. That is, 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.

Our research also sheds insight into the type of motivation that is elicited by trash-talking. We found that when individuals encounter trash-talking, they become motivated to punish the trash-talker and see the trash-talker lose rather than to maximize their own rewards of winning a competition.

We identify a boundary condition of our effect: the competitive/cooperative setting. Our findings reveal that targets of trash-talking perform well on effort-based tasks in competitive interactions, but targets of incivility perform poorly on effort-based tasks in cooperative interactions.

Across our six studies, we demonstrate that trash-talking influences the targets’ performance, perceptions of rivalry, motivation, unethical behavior, and creativity.]

“Very consistently in our studies, we find that targets of trash-talking become very motivated.” –Maurice Schweitzer

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the practical applications of these findings?

Yip: Our work informs a number of practical implications. First, we can provide prescriptive advice for potential and habitual trash-talkers. Trash-talkers need to recognize that they may unintentionally be boosting their opponent’s motivation and performance. So, we encourage trash-talkers to engage in deeper perspective-taking so that they are able to gauge what the interpersonal consequences are for their rude behavior.

Second, we encourage managers, executives and coaches to think carefully about when to expose their employees to trash-talking. We urge managers to deliberately and strategically expose trash-talking to employees once they’ve considered what task their employees are performing. In light of our findings, 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. But if that performance task is more cognitively demanding and involves creativity, then we would find that trash-talking may actually diminish their performance. Managers need to be aware of the different effects on behavior that trash-talking can have.

Knowledge@Wharton: What does trash-talking do in cooperative settings?

Schweitzer: What’s interesting is that trash-talking can be very destructive in a cooperative setting, whereas it’s motivating in a competitive setting. In one of our studies, we had people either cooperate with somebody or compete with somebody. These were confederates — paid research assistants who engaged in the same trash-talking behavior in both cases.

They said things like, “I can’t believe I’m paired with you. I can tell you’re such a loser already.” Then they performed a cooperative task or a competitive task. The exact same messages boosted performance in a competitive task but harmed performance in a cooperative task.

Knowledge@Wharton: What contribution does your work add to existing academic theory in this area?

Schweitzer: Our work, I think, connects to two important literatures. One is the literature on competition and rivalry, more specifically. Jeremy talked about British Airways and Virgin, where trash-talking is part of that rivalry and competitive environment. We see trash-talking motivate people but also exacerbate conflict. We see rivalry as something that typically occurs over a long period of time with competitive interactions, but trash-talking is a way to fast track that relationship so we can transform normally competitive behavior into a much more intense, more rivalry-like situation.

The second literature that we would connect this to is literature on incivility. There’s some very interesting work by (Georgetown University professor) Christine Porath and others looking at uncivil behavior in the workplace. We find that, consistent with that prior work, it’s destructive in cooperative settings. Within your organization, trash-talking each other is not very useful, but in competitive settings it might have an interesting role to play. In some other emerging work that we have, we’re beginning to find that trash-talking somebody else’s group can actually have a bonding effect on our group.

Knowledge@Wharton: How will you follow up your research?

Yip: The current work that we just described focused on the effects of trash-talking on the target in dyadic interactions. Some of the more current work that Maurice and I are carrying out investigates the effects of trash-talking in group interactions. It’s valuable to understand the effects of trash-talking between groups and also to understand the consequences for observers who are not necessarily targets. In our current work, we are investigating how observers react to trash-talking and whether that facilitates group cohesion and functioning.

If we return to the example of Richard Branson, why did he go to the trouble of spending all that money and time to have a blimp with a giant banner on it and float it over the construction site? Are there any benefits to doing that? We hypothesize that employees in that situation may respond quite favorably to it and may be more likely to identify closely to their organization. We’ve begun collecting data and testing that hypothesis.

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