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The power of a swear word in building team connection

In an extract from his book Teams that Swear, Adrian Baillargeon examines why swearing at work can actually be a good thing.

When it comes to working with people, swearing seems to have some sort of profound effect. I have often heard people say, “I swear by this approach” or “I swear that’s what I heard”, and of course the old classic, “I swear on my mother’s grave.”

When I moved to Australia in 2005, I noticed swearing was much more part of the regular conversation. I would crown the term ‘bloody’ as the great Aussie adjective. Encouraging drivers not to drink and drive, the Transport Accident Commission – a state-based government agency whose responsibilities include promoting road safety – used the tagline, “If you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot” in a wide-reaching campaign to reduce drinking and driving.

Being somewhat competitive, I felt research would support my argument that swearing isn’t good. Much to my bloody disgust, I was proven wrong.

Tourism Australia also jumped into the swearing game with the now-infamous 2006 “So Where The Bloody Hell Are You?” campaign.

And it’s not just the softer swear words Aussies are comfortable with. Arguably the harshest word (it’s a four-letter word, starts with the letter C and rhymes with ‘runt’) seems to be used as a term of endearment. When playing indoor cricket, I’d often hear, “Good on ya, c***.” Or in a tongue-in-cheek manner, “Ah, shut up, c***.” Full on, isn’t it?

At work – in the corporate space – I experienced a similar use of profanities. Not as many C bombs, probably more F bombs. Some people were happy to drop an F bomb here and there. F that person, F the business, F the project, F the budget, F me!

Proving the case

I worked with a great colleague who was very comfortable using this type of language. I playfully flagged my observations to her one day and so the debate began about whether swearing was good or bad.

Being somewhat competitive, I felt research would support my argument that swearing isn’t good. Much to my bloody disgust, I was proven wrong.

Cognitive psychologist Kristin Janschewitz, Associate Professor at Marist College in New York, has found evidence that suggests there is no proven harm in the impacts of swearing. Having observed more than 10,000 episodes of swearing in public – with adults and kiddos – her work suggests that most uses of swear words are not problematic.

Swearing doesn’t lead to acts of violence, and for most people swearing leads to positive outcomes.

Swearing doesn’t lead to acts of violence, and for most people swearing leads to positive outcomes. Swearing to make people laugh, for example, is quite common.

Janschewitz also noted that swearing can help achieve a number of positive outcomes “when used positively for joking or storytelling, stress management, fitting in with the crowd, or as a substitute for physical aggression”.

OK, so swearing doesn’t cause any harm if used the right way. But it actually helps and is good for me?

I swear it’s a good idea

Swearing in the workplace

There was still a part of me that didn’t quite feel right about what I had discovered, so I dug a little deeper. And to my colleague’s delight, the case got stronger for her. Here’s what I discovered:

Swearing can increase an individual’s pain threshold. Psychologist Richard Stephens at Keele University in Staffordshire in England discovered people could keep their hands submerged in ice water about 50 percent longer when they swore compared to when they used a neutral word.

Move over steroids, swearing can make you stronger. Stephens performed two experiments that led him to this conclusion. The first involved a group jumping onto exercise bikes and riding for 30 seconds against a fair amount of resistance. The second involved participants challenged with a hand dynamometer (a squeezy type of thing) which measures grip strength. Surprise, surprise – both groups performed better when repeating swear words during the activity compared to repeating neutral words. F me! For the squeezers, the results were eight percent better, while the cyclists’ results were between two percent and four percent better. Remember, all those one-percenters can make a difference.

Swearing can relieve feelings of rejection or exclusion.

Swearing can relieve feelings of rejection or exclusion. In 2012, researchers at the University of Queensland asked 70 volunteers “to remember an experience of being excluded from a group or included in a group”. Researchers asked one group to swear while retelling their stories, and another group to recount theirs without swearing. The group that included profanities in their stories reported lower feelings of social pain.

And finally, and more closely aligned to the arena of high-performing teams, research from Australia and New Zealand has shown that “risking a swear word of frustration, amusement or sympathy among members of a new social group is an important barometer of how much we believe that our good intentions are accepted”. The researchers concluded that, we tend to swear among those we trust, and swearing can help to create trust.

The power of words

In an interview with National Geographic, Emma Byrne, author of Swearing is Good for You, summed up the research best when she said, “jocular abuse, swearing among friends, is a strong signal of the degree of trust that those friends share. When you look at the transcripts of these case studies of 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.”

Remember, words have an impact. Big impact.

So does this mean that to create higher performing teams, rolling out a tirade of expletives is the way to go? Remember, words have an impact. Big impact. Look at this list of words and think about the impact they have had on our world:

  • I have a dream
  • I love you
  • I h@te you (the H word is deemed a swear word in our house)
  • No
  • #metoo
  • Make love, not war
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • If you build it, he will come

When it comes to swearing in teams, it’s not necessarily what you say, it’s how you say it. And when, and to whom, and where.

Hence the name of this book. We’re aiming to create teams that might swear at each other, but it’s because they swear by each other. These are high-performing teams.

This is an edited extract from Teams that Swear (By Each Other, not About Each Other) Adrian Baillargeon, 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. He has spent more than 20 years working in corporate and sports teams, including roles at Bupa ANZ, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada, Imperial Oil and Labatt’s Canada.

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