- A new study finds that 2021 was a record year for expletives in conference calls.
- But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Prior research shows high-performing teams swear more often.
- The findings have implications for managers devising best practices for the post-pandemic workplace.
If you’ve been anywhere near a conference call in the past year, chances are you’ve heard more than your fair share of f-bombs.
A new study by Sentieo, the financial and corporate research platform, finds that 2021 was a record year for expletives in conference calls. Swear word usage increased about 60% from 2020, and 80% from 2018, according to the study, which looked at a global transcripts database covering 9,000 companies with English-language transcripts, such as quarterly calls, shareholder meetings, investor conferences. It was mostly management teams who cursed on calls.
The report, published this month, hinted at why profanities are on the rise: Business formality is on the way out — neckties are a fraction of their peak in 1995, and workplace authenticity, which apparently includes a more liberal use of colorful language, is in.
Whatever the reason, research suggests it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A survey conducted last year by ignite80, a learning and development company, found that members of high-performing teams are more likely to swear around each other than members of low-performing teams. High-performing team members are more likely to joke around and discuss non-work matters during work time. They, for instance, talk about books, gossip, and go out for coffee or drinks. In short, they act more like friends than coworkers.
At a time when organizations around the world are grappling with how to devise best practices for virtual, hybrid, and in-person teamwork, the findings hold implications and lessons for how managers can get the best out of their people.
It’s not that swearing and gossiping drive stronger relationships necessarily, said Ron Friedman, a social psychologist and the lead researcher on the ignite80 study. “It’s that close relationships spark a host of behaviors that on the surface don’t seem to resemble hard work at all.”
This is consistent with prior research on team performance that shows the closer people feel to their colleagues, the more productive they become.
“It’s because all of us have a basic human psychological need for relatedness and belonging,” Friedman said. “Most workplaces focus on recruiting top talent and treat human connection and relatedness as an afterthought. That’s a mistake.”
Lessons for managers
Giving and receiving recognition is a defining habit of high-performing teams, according to the survey, which was conducted on behalf of Front, a customer-communication company. Members of high-performing teams are more likely to express and receive appreciation for their contributions than lower-performing teams.
Bosses play a critical role in encouraging that behavior, according to Jack Wiley, an organizational psychologist and author of the forthcoming book, “The Employee-Centric Manager.” Empathy is key — especially when teams aren’t all physically in one place, he said.
“Managers can kick-start close relationships among their team members by modeling how to provide support,” he said. “They should give others credit for their great ideas, compliment good work, and make a point of recognizing people’s commitment to getting the job done. This keeps people jazzed up for their next assignments.”
The findings also underscore distinct differences between high- and lower-performing teams in terms of communication cadence, frequency, and substance. Successful teams, for instance, communicate more frequently as a whole and use voice and video more often than their less-successful counterparts. They’re also more likely to check emails in the evenings, on weekends, and vacations.
Prior research shows that moderately high levels of connection among team members predict high performance, but there is also danger of too much of a good thing. Burnout is a risk, and the culture around how teams use communication tools like Slack or Zoom often makes the difference, said Rob Cross, a professor at Babson College, and author of the forthcoming book, “Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being.”
“Instant messaging is great for getting information quickly from a teammate or sharing a quip that lightens the mood and makes team members feel closer to each other,” he said. “But taken too far, it can become a tool that drives an unhealthy, always-on mentality where people feel they need to respond immediately and at all hours.”
Managers must strike the right balance between cultivating close relationships and also making sure people feel they can successfully turn off. One way to do this is by creating norms and expectations for intra-team communication. For example, bosses should put a moratorium on work emails sent late at night. Instead, emails should be sent on a delay so they arrive the next morning.
The goal, he said, is for managers to promote “purposeful collaboration.”