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When Leaders Swear

Posted by Paul Hellman  June 7, 2013 11:00 AM

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The other day, while a U.S. CEO was being reprimanded by his board for "salty language" (a front page Wall Street Journal story), I was abroad, eating breakfast.

It was a buffet, and the young woman seated nearby was struggling with her choices. She began with noble intentions: a dry omelet and a few rice cakes.

(Rice cakes, if you've never tried them, are similar, I imagine, 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.

A few minutes later, she returned with a new plate featuring an impressive stack of pancakes and several juicy strips of bacon.

Sigmund Freud, had he been there, would have noted the never-ending struggle between what he called id (your raw drives) and superego (your disciplined, controlled side).

The problem with swearing 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.

Also, 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.

Does that mean that you should never swear, that you should commit, at the buffet of language, to a salt-free, rice cake, verbal diet?

Well, the thing about swearing, as comic George Carlin observed years ago, is that there are some words you're allowed to use some of the time, but not all of the time.

Let's be situational. Consider at work:

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."

There are "moments in life," says psychologist Steven Pinker, "when the point for politeness has passed."

Tip: If you're a leader, use salty language like salt—sparingly.

© Copyright 2013 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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