A U.S. CEO was rebuked by his board for “inappropriate language.” It was a big deal, three independent directors resigned.
I read the story (WSJ) over a buffet breakfast, while abroad.
The breakfast featured lots of choices, and the woman at the next table was conflicted. She began with noble intentions: a dry omelet and a few rice cakes.
Rice cakes, if you’ve never tried them, are similar to eating Styrofoam packaging material, but with less calories.
She nibbled at the omelet, nibbled at the rice cakes, then pushed her plate as far away as possible and got up.
“I can’t eat that,” she told me. I wasn’t sure whether she was referring to the rice cakes, or to my yogurt and blueberries.
A few minutes later, she returned with a new plate featuring an impressive stack of pancakes and several juicy strips of bacon.
If Freud had been there, he would have noted the never-ending struggle between what he called id (your raw drives) and superego (your disciplined, controlled side).
The problem with “inappropriate language” at work is that it looks like you’ve got a loose, out-of-control id. But work is about control, starting each day when the alarm goes off—oh, no!—and you force yourself out of bed.
Does that mean that you should never swear, that you should commit instead to a restricted, rice cake-like verbal diet?
At some companies, swearing is the norm. A woman exec told me her male colleagues used to chide her for not swearing.
She finally left.
Let’s assume that’s not the norm where you work. Consider your choices:
1) Swearing at others. This one is easy: don’t.
2) Swearing to impress others. People with a high need for power, noted psychologist David McClelland, often use provocative language.
The motive here is simply to get a reaction. It doesn’t really matter to you whether others like you or your language.
But maybe it should.
3) Swearing at a situation. Imagine a bad day. First, your computer crashes. Then the stock market crashes. Then your airplane crashes. At some point, you might say something stronger than darn.
But here’s the thing. If you’re a leader, people notice everything you do, from what goes into your mouth to what comes out.
And everything you do communicates your standards . . .
P.S. Adapted from You’ve Got 8 Seconds, my latest book — translated into 5 languages, selected by a Fortune 50 company for their book club, and named one of the best biz books of the year by an obscure, but obviously brilliant, Canadian newspaper. In print, kindle, audio.
You can read it, listen to it — or, I suppose, swear at it.
P.P.S. Click here to get these fast tips.
PAUL HELLMAN consults & speaks internationally on how to make your point—fast, focused, dynamic. For more info on our programs: please call 508-879-0934 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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