Swearing Makes You a Better Leader

management style, manager, leader, leadership, swearing

Tweeting may get you fired from your job (see yesterday’s post) but apparently, swearing gets you promoted.  This is in fact the first thing that came to my mind after reading the bnet article on Swearing and How It’s Good For Your Team.

According to the study conducted by Professor Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins, swearing aids in leadership communication and boosts team spirit. Didn’t President Obama once say on the David Letterman Show, (he needed) “to determine whose ass to kick,” when referring to the BP executives after the oil spill?

And if President Obama’s doing it, is it acceptable for everyone else?  Late night television is not exactly like the corporate boardroom at the bank or company you work is it? The above-mentioned study which involved an undercover operation by Jenkins where he observed workers in a British mail house using profanity, and even tested the efforts and actions out for himself.

A long time ago in a bright orange big box retailer far, far away I myself had a boss.  In fact, I had recently been transferred as HR Manager of a store.  I learned of my transfer the Sunday before I returned from a much-needed vacation.  The new HR Manager, called me to let me know that my personal effects from my office at the old location were in a box, and would I like to pick them up?

“Yes, I would like to pick them up thank you?  And what store am I being transferred to?” I asked.

My transfer sent me to a very rough and rowdy store where the profanity was free throwing.  It was a very urban neighborhood. The store manager like the neighborhood there had a reputation.  He was known for making demands and being unreasonable.  He was a jackass and wasn’t the type who tried to hide it.  And later that Sunday afternoon, I made a trip to my new store paying a visit to my new boss who I dotted line reported too.

I walked up to the boss, and said the following, “I heard I’m being transferred to your store.  You have a reputation.  I will not put up with your bullshit.  Let me do your job and I’ll do it well.  Don’t f*ck with me.”

Yes, the f-word and the bullshit came out of my mouth and with force.  I looked him straight in the eye.  Didn’t back down.  See what I didn’t know is that he had requested me specifically to transfer to his store because I was good at my job and I also had a repuputation for working hard and doing good work.  I later learned this so the profanity may have not been necessary. I don’t regret what I said or did because he was known for treating previous HR managers as his professional errand and coffee-fetcher. I worked with that manager for nearly 6 months all while we were involved in a multi-tiered class action lawsuit. Working there was like working in a battle field. I was threatened. My car was keyed. There were picketing by employees who were part of the lawsuit. I was threatened so maybe that profanity was needed because it set the tone for my tenure. I wasn’t someone who was scared of anything which was a lie because working at that store location was one of the hardest things I had ever done.

So maybe profanity at work might make you a better leader, but I really believe there is a time and a place.  The words gave me confidence and a sense of power to make a point and take a stand.  And for those of you that work in primarily blue collar industries, the place maybe be 15 times a day.  I can’t imagine throwing down the f bomb in a New York City law firm or even the buttoned-up insurance and investment corporation. It might not be well-received just like that time I made the mistake of saying the word “shit” in the middle of a keynote speech to 1,500 conference attendees.

Sometimes I use profanity. That is just me. And I had to remind myself that multiple times when I read the feedback from my presentation. I don’t regret my word choice. I aspire very much to live my life with no regrets. However, my single word of profanity seemed to be what everyone in the audience had focused on. I was worried that the word kept everyone from getting the bigger message of what I had been saying.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

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Comments

  1. As with any words, curses have a time and place for use. Effective communication, especially when considering various audiences, must be fluid and adapt. Sometimes that means using colourful epitaphs, sometimes it means being erudite, and sometimes you use slang or regional colloquialisms to get Hella Wicked, Ya’ll.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nik. I wonder if the study results are different than maybe how we feel in the US because it was based in the UK. Nuances and what’s acceptable are slightly different over there.

      JMM

  2. I don’t see how it adds effectiveness, even when taking a stand. Swearing hasn’t really had the added benefit of getting my point across to the higher-ups when something’s been wrong at work. I don’t think I was taken any more seriously than if I’d just said what I thought in an inexplicit manner.

    • Ray,

      I tend to agree with you. I’m not exactly sure how cussing lends to being a better leader unless employees are scared out of their mind when a boss starts ranting making them be more productive. To me, that’s not what a good leader is really about.

      Thanks for the comment.

      JMM

  3. Instead of swearing I like to use funny words/phrases in place of swear words. I think it gets the point across better and usually adds some levity to the situation.

  4. Sooo, coming from another “HR Chick” who has also worked in blue collar industries (i.e. government contracting/military and my favorite, beer, as in Budweiser, as in… couldn’t get more American until the Belgium’s bought them…lol)… I have to go on record and say that I do think that industry is probably the biggest variable. As one of the few females at companies in the above categories, I learned very quickly what it’s like to work in a world that I suspect resembles the boys locker room… and either you fit in or you don’t; and this is more critical at the leadership level more for peer acceptance and inclusion in an effort to get things done for the company than for getting your point across to employee’s.

    I do agree with the other comments, that employees are mostly going to respect authority and leadership regardless of whether you swear or not… and lack of respect is going to come from being a poor leader or manager, not because you don’t cuss.

    My problem was being a female in a male dominated industry, and in the role as the senior HR professional when we all know that HR is often seen as administrative and lacking authority. Let me tell you, there are times when I’ve thrown down and cussed like a sailor and not only did it get people’s attention, it got there respect when I needed it to be allowed to do my job. Sometimes just being smart, logical and creating the solid business case still wasn’t enough to break through ego’s and stubbornness. Calling someone out for being a jackass and telling them to leave their bullshit at the door was as effective as a cold shower.

  5. Depending on the context and who I’m talking to, I’m ok with swear words at work. I rarely use them, though, and you may be interested to know that I work in a law firm. I agree that swearing can be a good way to vent emotions. However, I don’t think cursing is particularly inspiring or engaging to be used as a motivational tool. On the contrary, especially when used out of anger, I think swear words can heighten the negative aspects of an issue and possibly devalue the person using them. I would encourage other more positive ways to show your vulnerable/human side in order to connect with colleagues.

  6. Personally, I have found value in swearing sparingly, particularly in presentations. Unless you are an exciting speaker (which to be honest, most people aren’t even close) cursing towards the beginning and near the end of your slide deck catches the audiences attention and keeps them better engaged for your content.

    However cursing in casual speech or a meeting at work is usually out of place. Unless, of course your company has more relaxed office culture.

  7. You have to be careful across gender lines here, too. While I’ve been known to swear at work, I choose my place and time carefully as a female manager. Fair or not, I believe there is still a bigger downside for women who swear at work than for men. Men who swear may be perceived as commanding while women who swear may be more likely to be perceived as lacking in character.

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