New study reveals the powerful and bizarre effects of using violent rhetoric at work

Here’s what happens when you “declare war” on the competition


Steve Jobs once declared “holy war” on Google and its Android products. New research suggests that kind of talk could have had powerful effects on the employees at not just Apple, but at Google, too. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

They seem innocent enough on the surface, and chances are, you’ve heard something along these lines in your own office.

“We’re going to annihilate the competition.”

“We’re going to attack this problem.”

“We’re going to fight for every customer.”

New research, however, suggests that such violent business rhetoric from company owners and corporate executives can have a significant impact on the behavior of both their employees and those of their competitors. In some cases, it can even blur the lines between right and wrong.

In the study, David Wood and Josh Gubler, both professors at Brigham Young University, and Nathan Kalmoe of George Washington University asked hundreds of participants to pretend they were sales associates for a company. Subjects were then presented with a motivational e-mail or speech excerpts from a chief executive. Half were told the comments came from their firm’s CEO; the rest were told it came from the head of a rival company.

In some cases, the language included lines like “I am declaring war on the competition,” “fight for every customer,” and “making sales calls is a battle.” In others, those phrases were replaced with “I am declaring all-out effort,” “compete for every customer,” and “I know making sales calls is challenging,” respectively.

Afterward, the more than 250 participants in the study were required to make one of two decisions of an ethical nature. Some were pressured by colleagues to post smearing online reviews of their competitors, while others were coerced to ignore their company’s policy by selling to customers who did not meet a credit-score minimum.

The researchers found that the use of the violent rhetoric had a consistently powerful effect on the decisions made by participants. However, in a strange twist, the influence went in different directions depending on which executive made the remarks.

That is, those who received wartime language from the chief executive of a competitor were significantly more likely to post negative reviews and ignore the credit standards than those who received the more neutral remarks. Conversely, those who received the violent metaphors from their own executive were far less likely to make those dishonest decisions.

“In each study, we changed only three or four words and yet we were able to observe significant differences in behavioral reports,” Gubler, Wood and Kalmoe wrote in the study. They later noted that, in the real world, motivational e-mails or speeches using violent metaphors may be accompanied by photos or graphics of a similar nature, which could produce an even stronger effect on employee behavior.

Making matters even more interesting, the participants who read that their rival’s CEO was “declaring war” on them were less likely than their counterparts to rate those decisions (posting the reviews and breaking sales rules) as unethical. Researchers thereby concluded that the use of violent language by executives may not only influence whether workers are willing to cross the line between right and wrong — but also where that line is drawn.

“This has significant implications for how business leaders address this problem,” they wrote. “It is likely that individuals will be less responsive to ethical training and similar interventions if they do not believe they are being unethical.”

It’s worth noting, the researchers point out, that some of the most successful business leaders have been quoted using such language. Steve Jobs, for example, once declared “holy war” on Google. Nokia’s executives declared “all-out war” on the mobile industry. More recently, Uber’s top executive referred to his plight against the taxi industry as both a “battle” and a “war,” calling the industry “dangerous and evil.”

Follow J.D. Harrison and On Small Business on Twitter.

J.D. Harrison covers startups, small business and entrepreneurship, with a focus on public policy, and he runs the On Small Business blog.

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