Select Page

My reaction would be no! No, No, No. And again, NO! (Just so you are sure)

And that is the reaction of most of the people who posted responses to this Harvard Business review article “The Subtleties of Strategic Swearing“. Frankly there is nothing subtle about swearing. Frankly I am surprised it is even suggested.

Think through this for a moment. A boss swears at an employee. Is that ok? An employee swears at their boss? You bet they will be sacked or disciplined pretty quickly. So the same should apply the other way. Swearing is associated with a limited vocabulary. When a boss does it, it could even be construed as bullying. Beware. If you can’t control emotions, and your language, then find a different way to express them.

Now there is a separate question discussed: “How do I shock people?”. If you have to resort to swearing then that is a very limited response. There are better ways to signal anguish, importance or shaking people up rather than swearing. A powerful story, a strong signal of intent (Disciplining someone or even sacking them). A quiet word in a closed room. There are plenty of ways to do that.

Did Obama get the message across by asking “Who’s ass do I kick?” More likely he is signalling, in the vernacular, that he wants someone to blame. He wants someone to be held accountable. If so, then say so, but keep the high ground. Was he having a “Strategic temper tantram”. I don’t think so. He was communicating to the wider audience, not the one that picked him up. It was a calculated political statement.

What about behind closed doors? Back stage? Last year I met a manager in the NHS who swore several times in our first meeting. None of the explanations or situations warranted swearing. In fact within a short while I had decided he had a limited way to express himself. What was he tryting to demonstrate? I am not sure. He did himself no good, of that I am sure. Does it show when someone is being authentic? Perhaps, but only if its exceptional. Not three times in the first conversation.

What about on the shop floor. In the past I have worked in environments from car factory lines, to dustbin collection and factories packing t-shirts. Some swearing occurred, and some groups had it as a conversational norm, but it should not be encouraged.

So avoid swearing as a way to communicate strategy, importance or impact. Find something more subtle and effective than, “The boss swore today”. Is that how you want to be remembered? Is that the tone to set? Is that how you want your other managers to behave. I don’t think so.

I suspect the original article was for effect. The problem is, its created the wrong effect, hasn’t it.