McDonough School of Business
News Story

Trash-Talking: An Unexpected Double-Edged Sword

Often, when people hear of trash-talking, it is in the context of sports or politics. What about in business? As it turns out, trash-talking among employees and CEOs is just as common, and the results are surprising.

Trash-Talking: Competitive Incivility Motives Rivalry, Performance, and Unethical Behavior,” which recently was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, explores the impact of trash-talking on the target. Authored by Jeremy Yip, assistant professor of management at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, as well as Maurice Schweitzer, professor of operations, information, and decisions, and Samir Nurmohamed, assistant professor of management, both at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the study found trash-talking is a common workplace behavior that can foster rivalry and motivate both constructive and destructive behaviors.

“There is a significant amount of research looking at the impact of rudeness and incivility in the workplace. However, our study is the first to define trash-talking and explore how trash-talking influences perceptions, performance, and unethical behavior in competition,” said Yip. “We challenge the long-held belief that uncivil remarks harm performance. Instead, we find trash-talking can increase motivation and performance in targets by creating a strong perception of rivalry and desire to beat the trash-talking opponent.”

Across two pilot studies and six experiments, the researchers recruited 1,000 participants and had them interact with researchers posing as opponents over an instant messaging platform. Some participants received neutral messages, and other participants received trash-talking messages. Then, all participants completed different performance tasks in a competitive context. The findings revealed that for tasks that required effort, the targets of trash-talking outperformed targets of neutral communication. They were more likely to perceive a sense of rivalry and feel a desire to beat their opponent. However, for tasks that required creativity, those exposed to trash-talking not only performed worse, but also were more likely to cheat than those who were exposed to neutral messages.

“Our findings suggest trash-talking increases a person’s motivation to punish their opponent, which can lead to increased persistence,” said Yip. “Furthermore, targets of trash-talking are more likely to cheat since they are blinded by their desire to see the trash-talker lose.”

The findings of this study have very real implications on the business community. Potential and habitual trash-talkers should beware that their taunts and boasts could unintentionally boost the motivation of their targets.