A nutty principle I never learned in biz school: Teams that swear more win more

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IT’S BEEN A FEW YEARS since I went to business school, but I thought I had learned just about every basic principle of business that really mattered — until now.

Yes, here’s one business basic that my grad school professors never spent much time on, and I’m sure I would have remembered it if they did.

It’s this: Workplace teams that swear more actually win more.

I read about this in CEOWorld Magazine from a Canadian by the name of Adrian Baillargeon. His bio says he is “an international conference speaker and leadership team performance expert who helps determined leaders make their teams shine and win the games that matter most to them.”

Do teams that swear more really win more?

Baillargeon seems to have a focus on building teams, and here’s what he said about working in Australia in his CEOWorld article titled Teams that swear more win more:

“When I moved to Australia from Canada, I noticed swearing was more common in everyday conversation. At work, I encountered several colleagues unafraid to drop the occasional F-bomb, prompting debate amongst my peers about the merits of swearing. To our surprise, we were all right. Australians do swear a lot. And it’s good for you.

A study conducted by SEEK revealed that 65% of Aussies admit to swearing at work. Americans also enjoy the odd profanity at work, with 57% of US workers having heard a colleague swear at work. Canadians swore similarly – another study found that 46% of those friendly Canadians have cussed at work.

So (while) a good chunk of us swear at work, it’s OK; having a potty mouth can benefit a team’s performance.”

I couldn’t find the study Baillargeon mentioned — and shame on him and his editors for not linking to it  — but I think it’s from Seek Learning in Australia.

Here’s his point: “High performance relies on mature relationships underpinned by trust and connection. Low and behold, swearing can help strengthen those two factors. Studies have also shown that we tend to swear more around people we trust, and swearing can help to create trust.”

The critical issue here is trust. Mr. Baillargeon makes the case that swearing around teammates and other you work with closely can tighten the bonds you have with those people.

I’m sure that’s true, but anything that connects you more personally with workplace teammates will do that.

Little to support the swear more, win more claim

Here’s what I’m skeptical about: I’ve read the CEOWorld article by Mr. Baillargeon a number of times, and the more I read it, the more problems I have with it.

Part of it is the lack of any links to the research the article seems to be based on. I’ve been writing and editing a long time, and I’ve found that you often find that research cited to support a specific claim — like the notion that “teams that swear more win more” — has a lot more context to it, or, is not nearly as definitive as the author of the article citing it seems to think it is.

This article that states that “teams that swear more win more” only has two things that support the headline:

  1. The SEEK study — the one I couldn’t find that the article mentioned but never linked to — only makes the case that Australians, Americans, and Canadians admit to swearing more at work. The article does NOT show how much Aussies, Yanks and Canucks admit swearing at work compared to workers in the UK, New Zealand or anywhere else in the world. Maybe the SEEK study has that information, but that’s why linking to it is critical for readers. CEOWorld editors should know that.
  2. The article’s claim that “teams that swear more win more” seems to be based on a single quote from Emma Byrne, who is the author of a book titled Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language. However, the quote from Emma Byrne never says that “teams that swear more win more,” only that “effective teams in sectors like manufacturing and IT, those that can joke with each other in ways that transgress polite speech, which includes a lot of swearing, tend to report that they trust each other more.” Trusting your workplace teammates more is a good thing, but Ms. Byrne never links that trust to improved team performance — either in the CEOWorld article this month or the piece she had published in Time magazine back in January 2018.

I’ve written before (September 2017) about swearing at work (see I Have a Big F***ing Problem With People Who Swear at Workand I cited a Harvard Business Review article from way back in 2010 that dug into this very topic. It also cited actual research that supported the notion that there can be some benefits to swearing at work, but it didn’t draw the conclusion that “teams that swear more win more.”

Here’s my view about swearing on the job from six years ago that is still relevant today:

“Swearing is part of life, and that makes it part of how people act, both in the workplace as well as their personal life. Sometimes there’s good reason for it, and if done the right way, it can motivate and focus people on what needs to be done in a way that nothing else can.

The problem is when it goes too far, when it is gratuitous, in excess, abusive, or about settling scores more than anything else.”

An example of what’s wrong with today’s media

THAT’S AS FAR AS I would go about swearing at work back in 2017, and it’s as far as I’ll go today.

If there was a research study or any other data that showed that workplace “teams that swear more win more,” social media and TV news would be all over it. The fact that they’re not, and that I can’t find anything beyond the CEOWorld article on this topic in a quick Google search, tells me that it just isn’t so.

There are some good things in Mr. Baillargeon’s article — he gets into three ways to swear that helps your team, and three no-go-zones for swearing among your teammates — but the grand statement that “teams that swear more win more” isn’t supported by any research, data, or facts.

I hate to say that, because I have edited a number of newspapers, magazines, and websites and I know how writers can sometimes be sloppy, exaggerate, and get things wrong. But, that’s what editors are for.

IT’S HARD TO SAY  what happened here, but but my professional opinion based on 40 years as an editor is that Adrian Baillargeon’s editors at CEOWorld let him down. Somebody should have asked a lot more questions about an article that claims that “teams that swear more win more” that isn’t based on any specific facts or research.

Way back when I went to business school, I was exposed to a lot of business principles and how various organizations utilized them. However, I was never ever exposed to anything that claimed that “teams that swear more win more.”

I wish I had, because it would have made biz school a lot more fun.

Here’s hoping that no would-be MBA candidate ever runs into this article, because it’s certainly one that all the engineers I went to school with would have loved. And, they would probably have never cared much about the research, or lack thereof, backing it up.

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