By Vistage International & Craig Weber
But, in the workplace, should it?
That’s the crux of an interesting debate that grabbed the attention of the Wall Street Journal.
“The acceptance of profanity might be costing you more than you think,” says Weber. “Since some people find it offensive, but they’re unlikely to mention that fact for fear of looking weak or wimpy, the outcome can be growing dissatisfaction and sinking commitment. That can quickly translate into lost productivity, as people get distracted and disengage.”
Indeed, permitting profanity might be hurting your bottom line.
Swearing is a great example of the challenge in creating teams today, Weber says.
“Leaders must work with people who have radically different views of what is appropriate and effective. The question becomes: ‘What context do we need to create so everyone can pull together and do good work?” he explains. “And what are the factors that can limit our ability to wholeheartedly pull everyone’s experience, skills and abilities into the business?”
Two Corporate Cultures Accept Swearing
In his consulting practice, Weber finds the acceptance of profanity often characterizes two remarkably different cultures:
1) A laid-back, casual “we’re all in this together” environment
In this setting, using profanity conveys collegiality: “We’re comfortable enough with each other that we can let down our guard. It is a sign of respect. We’re all among friends here. I can let my guard down and show you the real me.” It is understood that swear words never would be used as a verbal weapon against another person.
2) A hard-driving, aggressive environment
Here, profanity is part of the highly charged atmosphere. Swearing may be directed at employees in a derogatory or verbally punishing manner, with the implied message: “We need these words to help get the job done, to express urgency, motivate people, or let them know mistakes are unacceptable.”
While each culture has its justification (or excuse) for supporting workplace profanity, the downside is often invisible but still very real: chances are, some employees are bothered by it and others are deeply offended.
“What makes it hard to manage is its ‘undiscussability’,” explains Weber. “The fact that someone swears like a sailor is frequently ‘undiscussable,’ so feelings are buried. The frustration then comes out in the hallway. People’s commitment levels start to drop, then you, as an employer, begin to pay the price,” Weber explains.
Proactive Leaders Address Issue ‘Head On’
Weber asks the managers and executives he works with to bring issues to him for his corporate leadership consulting. “From front-line managers to very senior executives in Fortune 100 companies, I’ve heard concerns about swearing, especially when it’s just one sign of a harsh culture that pushes people out of decision-making and problem solving,” he explains.
If swearing is accepted in your company, Weber recommends handling it proactively to see if an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with profanity is pulling the team apart. You can then make a more informed choice as to whether you want to continue to allow that sort of behavior in the workplace. But to make an informed choice, you have to understand the price you pay for the behavior in the first place.
One way to gain some practical insight is to start with a survey, since employees can answer anonymously.
Questions you might ask:
• Do you think our use of swear words is excessive or gets in the way of our ability to communicate, work together, engage problems or make decisions?
• Have you ever seen it cause a problem with customers, vendors, or anyone outside the company?
• Do you believe swearing contributes something to this company? If so, what?
• Do you find swearing, in-house, to be a plus about your job, a negative, or are you neutral?
• Would you want to change the use of profanity around here? If so, how?
The survey results would be a good start for a meeting on the subject.
A concerned leader could begin the conversation this way: “In our company, (or on our team), sometimes people swear as part of getting the job done. It’s come to my attention that others may find this offensive. So I’d like to begin a conversation about this practice.”
Questions he/she could raise:
• How can we let off steam or have tough discussions around here without resorting to words that some might find offensive?
• What’s the “upside” of swearing?
• Is it worth the risk of upsetting people, or possibly letting the wrong word fly at the wrong moment?
• How can we change our culture so that everyone can contribute and not feel distracted by unnecessary profanity or language?
Putting the profanity “on the table” as an issue will show the leader’s sensitivity to it, for those employees who have felt the matter undiscussable.
If a decision is made to create a “PFZ or profanity-free zone,” Weber has suggestions for how to change this aspect of a communications style.
Breaking the Profanity Habit
If you do choose to make some changes, realize that it is not as easy as flicking a switch. Culture change takes time and effort. Like breaking any pattern of behavior, it can be difficult to learn to curb the tongue in the workplace, if it’s a full-blown habit.
“You won’t realize how strongly you’re addicted to the behavior until you try to change it,” predicts Weber. Change takes practice.
Particularly when swearing is part of a corporate culture more than it is an issue with a few employees, it’s important that the leader of the company talk about it with the staff.
The conversation could begin like this: “I realize we have culture where swearing has been accepted. For some of us, this is no problem. But it might be costing us. Let’s discuss it. I’m more interested in people who disagree with our acceptance of this language, than with those who disagree.”
“By making it discussable, it’s clearer why there should be change, and new rules, and new norms for the team,” Weber says.
Make sure those who use colorful language understand why it’s important for them to change, and how it might help them with co-workers. “They need to see the price they’ve been paying for using profanity,” explains Weber. “People want to be effective. But they often don’t see how their colorful language limits both their personal effectiveness and that of the team or business. And helping them see that is often all that is needed for them to invest in change. But they’ll never see the need if the issue is undiscussable. That is why addressing the issue head-on is key.”
Techniques that have worked for breaking the profanity habit:
Fines: Charge people $1 each time they commit an act of swearing. Let them know that you will use the collected money for a shared reward at some point.
Hand signals: Agree on a simple hand signal that will remind a worker that they’re over the profanity line. (“But using your middle-finger or crude hand-gesture as the signal doesn’t count,” Weber advises).
Rewards for change: Decide on a way that people can be acknowledged for changing this difficult habit.
Feature success stories: When team members change their language for the better, they might discover a positive outcome from their newfound ways. If they’re willing to share the story of success, let them spread the word about the value of change in a meeting, on an Intranet or via the company newsletter.
“Make sure the group understands that this is a hard habit to break, and that everyone will have to be patient with one another,” Weber says.
Revisit the issue routinely after your “anti-profanity” initiative begins. Ask people in meetings how it’s going. Send occasional emails to let the staff know that you’re paying attention to the issue, and aware of progress. When your culture has shifted to your satisfaction, reflect on the success and celebrate.
Remember: Change happens, but only with a lot more effort than profanity did. Don’t forget to keep a sense of humor while you increase sensitivity, because the frustration of trying to change long-standing habits can trigger the same behavior you’re trying to change:
“ $#@*&!, I just swore again!”
Copyright 2014, Vistage International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article was previously published by Vistage International, the world’s largest CEO membership organization. Learn more at www.vistage.com.
Craig Weber is a founder of The Weber Consulting Group, an alliance that helps managers, teams and executives cultivate actionable competencies for leadership, learning and change. His cogent work focuses on improving the caliber of collaboration as people engage tough, complex, non-routine challenges. He consults internationally to an eclectic wide range of clients and has worked with CEOs, executive teams and thousands of people from all levels and functions of organizations. For more information, you can contact Craig at 661.940.3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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