Do Startup Cultures Have to Be Profane?
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A debate is brewing on whether the rampant use of off-color language somehow strengthens entrepreneurial cultures. Call it what you will -- swearing, profanity, obscenity -- one thing’s for damned sure: If it does breed success, then entrepreneurship will likely become even more of a bastion of men. But if profanity doesn’t improve the chances of success, then even suggesting that it does is highly misguided and naive.
The debate has arisen out of the current fascination with the Silicon Valley model of entrepreneurship and the possibility of making lot of money very quickly. Unquestionably, a rush for riches is an intense experience that evokes strong emotions and poses gut-wrenching risks for everyone involved. Think of oil wildcatting. And research on swearing does show that it conveys benefits to some.
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The release mechanism. Physiologically, swearing is widely acknowledged for being emotionally cathartic, temporarily relieving pressure and tension and potentially even pain. Psychologically, some people rely upon swearing to communicate strong emotions. Social scientists have noted that adolescents, mostly boys, use swearing and profanity as a sign of linguistic rebellion to detach from their immediate families. Swearing and profanity can also convey status within a group, as the person who swears first, or most, tends to hold a higher rank.
A credible argument could be made that liberal use of profanity could create close-knit teams of people who feel themselves rebellious by nature. These teams would realize further bonds by the intense stress of their environment where swearing is their shared form of relief. Sounds like a potent entrepreneurial culture.
But before we all become committed cursers, let’s consider the downside.
A downside of profanity. As most of us have experienced, swearing can be used to aggressively display dominance, often with sexual overtones. Other words and manipulative techniques could of course be used to achieve the same domineering result. But swear words, because they leverage both status and emotions, are a very common way to try to manipulate other people into accepting or doing something they would not have done otherwise.
Equally important, some people, including many women, are offended by taboo words. And research has also shown that humans can’t help calling up the connotations of the words they encounter, including the mild expletive I used above. Pretending otherwise on the part of the speaker, especially one who routinely uses potent physiological and sexual taboo words, is disingenuous. Many people will choose not to associate with such speakers, instinctually boycotting them.
Possible repercussions. No consumer-facing company would ever consider using swearing or profanity to create a more intense working environment, because a misplaced utterance could offend a customer. Swearing openly or often is similarly discouraged in many large companies that want their cultures to be considered inclusive, even if that excludes uncontrollably profane people. Highly scalable cultures need to attract all capable people, not just tough-talking males.
Finally, profane cultures make it harder to transition leadership. New leaders of established profane cultures must create new status indicators, likely more gender-neutral status indicators. This can take a great deal of time, and cost, not to mention added competitive vulnerability.
There are alternate methods for creating high-intensity cultures with built-in stress relief. A world-class method, employed by Pixar and others, is to have a culture based upon extremely high expectations, where asking for help is expected, not considered a weakness.
High expectations means setting objectives for each employee that are always a stretch to achieve with existing skills and resources -- but that the leadership of the enterprise or department is committed to helping the employee achieve nonetheless. Since no project or activity goes exactly as planned, leaders in these high-expectation cultures expect employees to ask for, and receive, help. If an expectation was set too high, then the supervisor is at fault, provided the employee sought and received help. Whether employees swear to themselves along the way is inconsequential in this culture. Pixar’s culture attracts and retains world-class talent, even as it has grown large.
Profanity is certainly one technique available to a leader who wants to create intensity while providing an emotional release. But profane cultures are not broadly applicable nor are they scalable or transferable. And there is no evidence that they attract more capable, more motivated people than less profane cultures.
Entrepreneurs who rely on profanity are often inexperienced leaders or people who do not plan to stick around to fix the problems that result. Many of these leaders have been associated with major valuations and payouts, but they have not had to create the long-term scalability of the enterprises they created. And even in startup mode, high-expectation cultures work better than high-expletive cultures.