CEOs who motivate with 'fightin' words' shoot themselves in the foot

Jul 22, 2014

Heading into the war room to fire up the troops? Declaring war on the competition to boost sales? Well, CEO, you might want to tamp down them's fightin' words—you could be shooting yourself in the foot.

A new Brigham Young University business study finds that bosses who try to motivate their employees with violent —think of Steve Jobs declaring "thermonuclear war" on Samsung—end up motivating rival employees to play dirty.

"Business executives use all the time," said David Wood, BYU professor of accounting and one of two BYU authors on the paper. "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."

Surprisingly, the study found that when an employee's own CEO uses violent rhetoric, those employees are less likely to make unethical decisions. Either way, the research shows clear evidence that violent rhetoric influences ethical decision making—for better or for worse.

Wood, BYU colleague Josh Gubler, a political science professor, and coauthor Nathan Kalmoe carried out two experiments with 269 participants for the study. In the first experiment they showed half the subjects this motivational message from a CEO:

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 subjects got the same message but with the words "war," "fight" and "battle" replaced by "all-out effort," "compete" and "competition," respectively. Researchers then assessed the subjects' likelihood to engage in unethical behavior—in this case, posting fake negative reviews for the competition's product.

They found that when the source of violent rhetoric was the rival CEO, employees were significantly more likely to post fake negative reviews and ratings about the competition.

"What's disconcerting is that people don't think they're being unethical in these situations," Wood said. "You can't just say, 'OK people, you need to be better now, don't be bad,' because they don't think they're being bad."

In the second part of the study, researchers tested whether participants would bend internal sales policies (no selling to people with credit scores below 600) to boost sales figures after receiving an email from their manager. Again half of the subjects received a message with violent rhetoric.

The results once again showed that the use of violent rhetoric by leadership impacted the ethical decision making of the . "There has been a lot of research on the effects of violence and on aggressive behavior," Gubler said. "This research shows it goes further: It affects your willingness to lie and to cheat and to bend moral rules. There are serious implications for CEOs." Adds Wood: "Our environment impacts our choices at much more subtle levels than we realize."

Explore further: Playing as black: Avatar race affects white video game players

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Violent political rhetoric fuels violent attitudes

Jan 25, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Political leaders regularly promise to "fight" for noble causes and "combat" pressing problems. They declare "war" on social problems, such as poverty, disease, drugs and terrorism.

Violent video games not so bad when players cooperate

Sep 04, 2012

(Phys.org)—New research suggests that violent video games may not make players more aggressive – if they play cooperatively with other people. In two studies, researchers found that college students who teamed up to play ...

Recommended for you

Is this the year you join the one percent?

3 hours ago

Here's some good news for the New Year: According to new research by Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell University, there's a 1 in 9 chance that a typical American will hit the jackpot and join ...

Satire has a history of informing during times of crisis

13 hours ago

Just as only the jester can tell the King the truth, satire performs a vital function in democratic society by using humor to broach taboo subjects, especially in times of crisis, according to a book by Penn State researchers.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.