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Why you should be careful with your battle cries

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Why you should be careful with your battle cries

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I’ve written a few times about the virtues of a so called burning platform in our workplaces.  The theory goes that change doesn’t tend to happen unless people can see the drastic consequences of not changing their path in some way.  Most of the time, this burning platform is an authentic one, but there are also times where managers artificially create one in order to prod people into changing their ways.

Such a strategy is not without risk.  A recent study highlights the risks involved.  It provides a telling reminder that whilst most crises are designed to rally dissenting voices together and create the unity required to invoke collective change, it doesn’t always work out like that.  The research paints a more dystopian Lord of the Flies type environment where crises destroy any trust and bonds between employees, thus removing any hope of successfully emerging from the crisis.

Another study, published recently by Brigham Young University, provides another salient reminder of the potential downside of this approach to change management.  Their study focuses on the aggressive and violent rhetoric often used by bosses to motivate employees and how such language influences our ethics.

The study found that when the boss uses such rhetoric, it has a fascinating impact, both on that bosses own employees, but also the employees of the company they are competing against.

The researchers carried out two experiments, the first of which showed half of the participants a motivational message from a rival 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 received the same message, minus the violent references.  So out went the words “war,” “fight” and “battle” replaced by “all-out effort,” “compete” and “competition”.  The researchers then tested whether the participant would then engage in unethical behaviour, which in this instance involved them posting up a fake review of a rival product.

The findings were fascinating.  When the rhetoric was used by a rival CEO, then they would be very happy to act unethically in bringing them down.  As soon as the gloves were off, then it became no holds barred.

“What’s disconcerting is that people don’t think they’re being unethical in these situations,” the researchers 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.”

The second half of the study flipped the tables and explored whether the situation would change if they received a similar war cry from their own manager.  In this instance, the participants were asked to bend internal rules regarding selling to people with bad credit ratings in an attempt to boost sales.  As with the previous experiment, half received a message full of violent rhetoric, and the other half did not.

Once again, the same results emerged, with people willing to bend rules providing they were asked to do so in an aggressive way, which is perhaps not the kind of response you want, is it?

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