Be Careful What You Say When Motivating Your Employees

Be Careful What You Say When Motivating Your Employees

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Be Careful What You Say When Motivating Your Employees


Want to fire up your employees to help you beat the competition? Well, a study has shown using fighting words or more violent language such as “we’re going to war” or “we’re going to kill” the competition can have counter-productive effects.

The research was carried out by Brigham Young University and demonstrates that violent rhetoric can heavily influence ethical decision making. Professor of Political Science Josh Gubler, and co-author Nathan Kalmoe used 269 participants in 2 separate experiments. In the first, 50% of the participants were asked to read the below motivational speech said to be written by a CEO of a company.

“To this end, 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. To motivate you to fight for this cause, I will be rewarding the top ten sales associates, and a guest, an all-expense paid vacation to Hawaii.”

The other half of the participants were given the same message but with different words. “All-out effort” replaced “war; “compete” replaced “fight”; “competition” replaced “battle.” Both groups were then studied to see if any participated in unethical behaviour. In this situation, “unethical” behaviour took the form of writing fake reviews for the rival firm’s product.

The study discovered that if the message was said to be from a rival CEO, it will motivate the employee to make unethical decisions and post fake product reviews. In stark contrast, if the source of the violent rhetoric comes from your own CEO, the employee is actually less likely to make unethical decisions.

David Wood – Brigham Young University Professor and co-author of the research paper about the study explained:

“Business executives use violent language all the time. They say, ‘We’re going to kill the competition,’ or ‘We’re going to war.’ This study shows they should think twice about what they’re saying.”

In the second experiment, the researchers asked participants to bend the rules to boost their sales figures by not selling to those below a certain credit rating. Half the participants were again given a message with violent rhetoric while the other half were given a message with such rhetoric removed. The results showed that those instructed by managers who used violent rhetoric were more willing to use unethical methods. The rhetoric, and leadership style of the manager impacted on the ethical decision making of the employee. Professor Wood concludes that such rhetoric:

“affects your willingness to lie and to cheat and to bend moral rules. There are serious implications for CEOs. Our environment impacts our choices at much more subtle levels than we realize.”




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