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An Unlikely Spark for Teamwork

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1023homespunweb.jpgBy Jennifer Waters, MarketWatch

RISMEDIA, Oct. 23, 2007-(MarketWatch)-Serial swearers take heart: Profanity in the workplace can be a morale booster and inspire a sense of team spirit. It depends, of course, on how it’s done and at what levels. “Social” or “annoyance” swearing can be effective in many office and workplace environments while vulgar or abusive cursing should never be allowed, according to a recent study.

And by no means should employees ever use profanity in front of customers, according to the study published in the U.K.-based Leadership and Organization Development Journal.

Yehuda Baruch, a management professor at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, U.K., and graduate student Stuart Jenkins found that “apparent misbehavior can serve an organization well.” Taboo language, they said, can manifest itself in solidarity that helps create a much more pleasurable and productive place to work.

That’s not surprising to many workers who find toiling in droll environments far more exciting than passing the hours in a hear-a-pin drop workplace.

“Social swearing” is conversational and tends to define relationships between people and groups. The study points directly to all-male or male-dominated cultures — think about a football locker room or the factory floor — in which the “competitive nature of men’s speech” creates a sense of harmony and oneness. Such organizations, the study said, are marked by a “lively boisterous communication style with friendly insults and witty use of coarse, casual profanity.”

But many people don’t work for the NFL or on a factory floor. Far more sit at desks in cubicles or open rooms. Often, workers will be within earshot of “annoyance swearing,” what the report describes as a “relief mechanism” for stress and tensions. Maybe more important, however, is that annoyance swearing replaces “primitive physical aggression.”

Women belt it out

The study also points to gender issues and an apparent double standard of men’s swearing compared with women’s cursing.

“Female swearers are often perceived to be of a low moral standing,” the researchers noted. Men, on the other hand, can generate reverence from swearing, though they tend to tone down the use of profanity in front of women.

It turns out, however, that women tend to swear more in mixed company as a means of asserting themselves and preventing the conversation from being male-dominated.

Not all swearing, of course, brings humor and overall goodness to the workplace.

Bullying is verbally aggressive behavior that has adverse effects on workplace dynamics. The authors warn that repeated occurrences of swearing, threats and verbal abuse can lead to depression, stress, low morale, absenteeism, retention problems and sluggish productivity.

What’s a manager to do? Banning swearing might be thought of as a form of strong leadership, but the researchers cautioned that it could tear apart that sense of solidarity. Doing that too could “seriously decrease morale and work motivation” that could too prompt an exodus of valued employees.

Jennifer Waters is a MarketWatch reporter, based in Chicago.

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