The Business Improvement Network

Trash talk damages business improvement.

By PJ Stevens

P J Stevens


What are the costs of trash talk on business improvement….

….and are there any positives?


What is trash talk?

Trash talk is perhaps more normally linked to sports. Cricket, in particular, is known for instances of trash talk or sledging as it's commonly referred to. Trash talk in cricket refers to verbal remarks or comments made by players to unsettle or distract opponents. Whilst some people engage in it, it's not universally accepted and can be frowned upon by cricketing authorities, some coaches and fans. The governing bodies of cricket have taken steps to curb excessive sledging to maintain the integrity and sportsmanship of the game, and reduce instances of racist remarks.


Trash talk in business refers to the practice of using aggressive, disrespectful or derogatory language or behaviour to undermine or embarrass competitors, colleagues or other individuals or communities within the business world. It can take the form of verbal or written taunting, used to gain a competitive advantage or to try and assert dominance in a particular industry or market.


Within businesses, trash talk is sometimes between teams, projects and business areas, and can be felt in cultures of blame or blame avoidance. In some cases trash talk can become personal, for example around hustings, career promotion or similar.


In a recent client project, internal trash talk between managers and teams were costing them dear, and had become part of the low level intimidation which existed in pockets of the business the culture. The trash talk became divisive and had a negative impact on collaboration and problem solving, which was highlighted in the research we conducted.  


Whilst there are some arguments to say that elements of trash talk can be good for the business if it promotes more honest sharing and feedback, particularly from clients as it can prove a source of information for improvements. More generally it is considered to have a negative impact on business and business improvement.


What are the costs of trash talk on business improvement

Here are some of the detrimental effects that I have seen, that trash talk can have on business improvement:


Perhaps the most damaging of all is that trash talk can create a toxic workplace culture, as previously mentioned in this piece. It can damage morale, decrease performance and productivity, and lead to an environment of distrust, anxiety and conflict among employees.


Trash talk is known to cause strain in relationships between teams and team members. It might create rifts, leading to conflicts and a lack of collaboration. Effective teamwork, collaboration and cooperation are essential factors in businesses for business improvement initiatives to succeed. Damage these factors and the damage to business activities can be considerable.


When employees are engaged, they tend to be more invested in their work and are more likely to contribute and come up with creative solutions and innovative ideas to improve business processes and activities. Trash talk can hamper or reduce this engagement and connection, causing employees to disengage from their roles and initiatives, and thus damaging the notion of business improvement.


Trash talk can have a negative impact on psychological safety and disrupt open and effective communication, essential for giving and receiving feedback, problem solving and so on. Honest and transparent communication is a crucial element for implementing any changes and improvements within a business. If employees feel unsafe or are hesitant to communicate openly, or fear being targeted or intimidated by others -including their manager - it is likely to impede progress or even bring a project to a standstill.


Trash talk within or about a company can affect its reputation and even its share price. If internal conflicts or negative discussions become public, it can harm the company and how it is perceived by clients, partners and potential new employees. Further it can affect business relationships, mergers, product launches, brand value and growth opportunities.


If staff continuously engage in negative talk, it can divert their focus away from important tasks and goals related to business improvement. It is likely to lead to wasted time and resources that many companies can ill afford - particular at this moment – and which could or should have been better utilised for positive and productive efforts.


Trash talk in a business can be tiring, distracting and costly, and is likely to hinder any business improvement efforts.


Business will do well to identify and reduce areas of trash talk and foster a better culture and behaviours (language) conducive to a healthy work place and business improvement. Business leaders should be encouraged to promote respect, constructive feedback and open communication across the teams and team members. Further, they should encourage positive interactions, set clear guidelines for respectful behaviours (link to values), and address any instances of trash talk promptly and consistently to maintain a healthy work environment that supports growth, improvement and progress, for good.


To balance the view, let’s consider any positives of trash talk on business improvement

In general, trash talk in a business environment is not beneficial for business improvement. However, in very specific and limited contexts, there might be a few perceived positives, although they are not recommended or encouraged due to the overall negative impact trash talk can have on a workplace. Here are some potential but limited positives, in my view, that trash talk can offer a business:


In highly competitive situations, businesses or innovative projects, some individuals might use trash talk as a means to fuel their competitive spirit. In rare instances, this could lead to individuals pushing themselves to work harder to prove their detractors wrong.


In some circumstances, criticism or negative comments exchanged in a confrontational manner might unearth areas where improvement is needed. This, however, is a risky and unreliable method as it often leads to more harm than good, damaging relationships and potentially creating a hostile work environment.


In rare instances, if an individual or team is consistently challenged by negative comments, they might want to prove themselves by taking action or implementing improvements. However, this should not be mistaken as a recommended or healthy motivational strategy, it isn’t.


In my experience, and that of many clients, it is important to note that any perceived positives from trash talk are heavily outweighed by the negative impacts it has on a business environment.


Constructive feedback, respectful dialogue and a positive work culture are far more effective ways to drive business improvement without the detrimental effects that come with trash talk. Creating a supportive, respectful, and collaborative workplace culture is key to sustained and meaningful business growth and improvement.

About the author

PJ Stevens is an expert in organisational change, performance and improvement, with 20 years experience. He is chair of the business improvement network.

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