Happy Pacifistswith David Wood, Joshua Guble, and Elizabeth Gramm
Business rhetoric is rife with the language of war—there’s constant talk of conquering markets and dominating the competition. These tropes indicate a dangerous way of thinking that can have real consequences, intended or not, on human behavior. In this episode, two professors share their research on the impact of violent rhetoric on business ethics, and a member of Basecamp’s Support team talks about communication techniques that get us out of the mentality that everything is a zero-sum game.
- The Brigham Young/Utah "Holy War" game is so famous it gets its own Wikipedia entry - 00:03
- Steve Jobs' quote about going "thermonuclear" against Android was first revealed in Walter Isaacson's biography - 1:18
- Joshua Gubler's website - 1:49
- David Wood's website - 1:57
- Joshua Gubler and David Wood's research, conducted with Nathan Kalmoe of George Washington University, was published in the Journal of Business Ethics in September 2015 - 3:20
- Planet Money did a story about The Art of War's popularity in business culture - 9:33
- If you have anxiety about late-stage capitalism like Wailin does, you should read this article by Alexis Madrigal - 11:08
- The Center for Nonviolent Communication - 13:07
- Check out Elizabeth's previous appearance on Rework - 13:25
The Full Transcript:
David Wood: [00:00:00] It all started when we started talking about a football game. The BYU-Utah football game is called the holy war. We said, hey, you know, this is a violently worded football game. And we started looking into college football games and a lot of them are good old-fashioned hate and the war of this or battle for this. And we kind of jokingly said, I wonder if that has any effect. Well, a Wall Street Journal article came out and talked about how there’s these, you know, in rivalry games, there’s more personal foul penalties and things of this nature. And so we actually asked for their data and started coding it up and then talking about violent rhetoric and all the different places you see this in society.
[00:00:39] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:00:40] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Shaun Hildner.
Wailin: [00:00:45] and I’m Wailin Wong. Shaun, does podcasting, ever feel like a battle to you? We’re fighting for every listener trying to claw our way to the top of the Apple Podcast charts. Reid Hoffman, Guy Raz, you guys are in our sights and we are coming for you.
Shaun: [00:01:01] I mean, we’re currently hunkered down in the Rework war room to bring you this episode. We’re on the front lines, boots on the ground. Podcasting is a zero-sum game and we’re going for total domination. It’s going to be a bloodbath.
Wailin: [00:01:12] Wow. I feel really fired up.
Shaun: [00:01:13] Same.
Wailin: [00:01:14] Maybe just as fired up as Steve jobs when he said he was going to go thermonuclear war on Android and there are lots of examples of this hyper-aggressive, violent language in business. It’s so common that we don’t even think about what we’re saying anymore, but the way we use language, even on an unconscious level, has an impact on how we behave and treat each other.
Shaun: [00:01:35] First up on today’s episode, we talked to a couple of professors at Brigham Young University about the effect violent rhetoric has on business ethics.
Joshua: [00:01:49] So I’m Joshua Gubler. I’m an associate professor in political science. I study political psychology and persuasion.
David Wood: [00:01:56] And I’m David Wood. I’m an associate professor of accounting and study both accounting, but then also more societal impacts and what’s going on, especially with ethics.
Wailin: [00:02:06] Joshua and David have spent a lot of time looking at language both in political and business contexts.
Joshua: [00:02:13] All you have to do is open up the newspaper and you can find some prominent CEO declaring war or thermonuclear war or some such thing. And those who’ve worked in the business world also talk repeatedly about motivational speeches that are full of violent rhetoric.
[00:02:30] The way we conceive a violent rhetoric is that it primes a certain set of associations. What associations are they? Well, they’re the associations related to conflict. To war. To battle. We know that they’re—that in those particular types of situations, that things that are not normally allowed become a little more acceptable, right? We have the old adage, all’s fair in love and war. You might not lie in a normal context, but if it’s war, then there might be more justification for that. So, the idea was to try and figure out how we could test that, particularly within the business context.
Wailin: [00:03:14] In 2015, David and Joshua teamed up with a colleague at George Washington University to design a couple of studies. In one study, they asked participants to imagine they were employees of a direct sales company. They were given a statement to read—something that a CEO would say at a big meeting for all sales staff. Some people were told the message came from their own CEO. Other people were told it was a message that the CEO of a rival company gave their sales people.
David Wood: [00:03:41] And the message from the CEO is thanks for your hard work during the economic downturn. We believe we’re through the worst of it now. And then we jump into violent rhetoric and the CEO continues to this end. I’m declaring war on the competition. I want you to fight for every customer. Do whatever it takes to win this battle. To motivate you to fight for the cause and so on and so forth. Some of our participants were randomly assigned to see that particular statement from the CEO and others were randomly assigned to see a statement identical to that. But in place of war and fight and battle, we included words like all-out effort and compete in competition. We asked individuals their willingness to go in and post negative reviews online and do a number of other unethical things vis a vis their competitors, in order to gain an upper hand.
Wailin: [00:04:40] In the second study, the researchers took the idea of degrees of unethical behavior even further. Participants were told that they could only make a sale to a customer whose credit rating was over a certain level. Then they were shown an email from their manager. Some people got a version of this message with words like battle, fight, and war. Others got a version with words like challenging, effort, and success. After reading the email, they were presented with a potential customer whose credit rating fell below the minimum for approval. They were asked about their willingness to make a sale to this customer.
David Wood: [00:05:13] So in the second study we wanted to set it up and say, hey, there is a bright line rule here. The company has set up an internal control that says this specifically can’t be done. So, between the two studies, you have something a little bit more squishy in terms of whether it’s right or wrong and lets people have more judgment versus a clearly this one is wrong according to what the company’s policies are.
Joshua: [00:05:36] What we found is that if an opposing CEO was using violent metaphors, violent rhetoric, vis a vis your company, that your willingness to engage in unethical behavior went up and it went up pretty dramatically. However, if your own CEO was using violent rhetoric, vis a vis another company, then when you were asked to break your internal controls, you were actually less likely to do that.
Wailin: [00:06:07] In other words, hearing violent language from a competitor’s CEO made participants more willing to bend the rules than hearing it from their own CEO. Joshua Gubler say this reflects a struggle between a person’s subconscious urges and their moral or ethical compass.
Joshua: [00:06:22] One of the fascinating things about metaphors is that they work at the subconscious level and that’s what makes them so powerful. If someone were to ask me to go and kill someone straight up, right? My self standards would kick in and say, well, that’s not the type of thing I do. But if you use underlying metaphors that work on the subconscious level, then we’re much more willing to bend rules and do things that we might not do if we were asked consciously to do them. And we think that explains the difference between your own CEO and the other CEO. With your own CEO, you know your internal standards and so on and so forth. Your self standards are more likely to apply. Whereas, when you’re interacting with the rhetoric from another CEO, you’re less likely, especially since this rhetoric is subtle and works at the subconscious level to self-correct. Your self standards are less likely to even kick in and you’re more likely to engage in unethical behavior.
David Wood: [00:07:29] I think there’s one other, part, too. When somebody else does something wrong first, we often feel, okay if they did it wrong, I need to do it wrong in retaliation. I’m justified. And so, when the other CEO starts a war on us, well then we can fight back. Whereas, if we’re kind of the aggressors and the initial ones to start this problem, people I think are more sensitive to say, Hey, well is this right or not? And so, I think that moral justification is easier when somebody throws the first punch versus you have to throw the first punch. Using violent rhetoric in my example.
Wailin: [00:08:04] I mean it’s so interesting what the study revealed because if the common wisdom in business circles is that if this kind of rhetoric is what gets your people all fired up, then, this shows in a small way, it actually can have, a different kind of effect, right? Where your own employees are actually not going to feel that motivated or perhaps no more motivated than they would have otherwise. And then it might have the effect of making people from your competitor engage in behavior that is going to be unethical or maybe tip the scales against you.
David Wood: [00:08:45] And I think that’s the fascinating part of this research is… too often we do something on the surface and think, oh, this is a good idea. I can get everybody to hit their sales quota, or motivate them to work hard. But you have to stop and think, well, at what cost? This can come back and bite you if it does have these unintended consequences in the future of, well, they’re not as ethical. Or, maybe next time I can’t motivate them, or these other effects. And that’s where I see we make a real contribution to showing, you know, there’s unintended effects from your initial ideas.
Wailin: [00:09:20] Have you also studied the whys and the hows of the very conscious ways in which the business world has adopted violent metaphors? I think particularly of the way that Sun Tzu’s The Art of War gets worshiped as kind of a business tome and has been adapted into kind of like a business self-help brand. Have you looked at that and kind of like what is it about war that has been really embraced by certain circles in business?
David Wood: [00:09:51] I’d say I’m not aware of research in this. As soon as you post it online, hopefully people will direct our attention to it. But there’s so… there’s a lot of people who think, well this is no big deal. You know, it’s not going to hurt me. I can watch or view or think about or use this language and it has no effect. And so, I think this study helps people say, well, you know what we need to question that. Violence has saturated our culture and maybe we need to step back and say, well what are the effects of this? And as you said, should we be embracing these… The Art of War in these different things, in non-war contexts. And I think you just raised a great question for future research.
Wailin: [00:10:38] There was something you mentioned in your study that got me thinking. You talked about the dehumanization process that happens during war, because I think the only way you can really motivate some regular person to kind of engage in violent acts as to dehumanize or other the other side. And when you take that into a business context, you now have these, you know, big companies employing a lot of people that maybe are seen by management as disposable or just kind of cogs in the wheel. Do you see this dehumanization happening first within a company before it’s even directed outward?
Joshua: [00:11:16] I think absolutely. I think dehumanization is certainly a big part of this. Even if you haven’t dehumanized, there’s an increased aggression level. And what aggression does is it actually makes it so that you’re more willing to cut corners to get to a goal.
David Wood: [00:11:34] There’s a whole movement towards… just the dehumanization as you said, that these aren’t people. That your employees aren’t people, that they are a means to exploit, to get to some end to make you better off. And, and that’s going to have some very poor, unintentional consequences that we need to really consider as a society and realize that there really are humans both at ownership and as employees and as customers. And how can we keep that in focus when—and as competitors—as we do business.
[00:12:10] I’ve been amazed since we started talking about this, how much violent language I used in the past and never even thought about it. And making people aware, I think, is the first step. So they can say, hey, can I say this in a, in a different way, in a better way? And those small changes start adding up if you get enough people working on it to make an improvement in an organization and in society.
Wailin: [00:12:31] ell good. I think that’s a more hopeful note to end on than just capitalism is a bloodsport
David Wood: [00:12:36] And to be fair, I don’t think it’s just capitalism. There’s actually been some other research across other countries, and war-torn countries have these issues. This is a big issue of the human race, not just of one small group, that that we need to learn how to be nice to each other.
[00:12:51] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Wailin: [00:12:54] Speaking of being kind to each other, if there’s one group at Basecamp that’s super deliberate about language and how they treat fellow human beings, it’s our support team. And a couple of years ago, a group of support folks attended a workshop on nonviolent communication, which is a set of techniques that’s been around since the 1960s. It’s also called NVC or compassionate communication. And I talk to our colleague Elizabeth on the support team about it.
Elizabeth: [00:13:24] My name is Elizabeth Graham and I’m a senior customer support rep at Basecamp.
Wailin: [00:13:31] If you were just telling a friend, or friendly podcaster, about what it is and what the workshop covered, how would you summarize it?
Elizabeth: [00:13:43] I would say that it is a process of communicating that prioritizes identifying and respecting every person’s needs. And there’s something I read recently that talked about how it was kind of a way for people to get what they want or need, but without feeling bad about the way that they did it. You know, a way of meeting and recognizing needs that doesn’t involve steamrolling someone or using other types of strategies, that you maybe would feel bad about later or that certainly the other party would feel bad about.
[00:14:30] Since a big part of NVC is, or compassionate communication, is recognizing in yourself and others the feelings that you’re having or that you’re observing them having and then the needs that are connected to those feelings. The needs that usually aren’t met if someone is feeling bad in some way. And so, one big part of NVC is like having all these really precise descriptive words for different emotions.
[00:15:01] But then faux feelings are words that tend to be like, I’m feeling ignored, or disrespected, or I’m feeling abandoned. Things that imply someone else has done something, if that makes sense. Like there’s a causality with the faux feelings. That idea is actually masking is the feelings that are underneath it, which are more like, sad, hurt, frustrated, lonely. You know, all those sorts of things, that when we kind of turn it so that it’s something that we’re feeling instead of feeling like it’s something that someone is imposing on us, it gives us more opportunities to then make clear requests to get those needs met.
Wailin: [00:15:52] Interesting. So it’s not faux feelings in terms of you are not feeling these feelings. It’s you think you’re feeling this kind of feeling, but dig a little bit deeper to find a feeling behind a feeling. I just said feelings like 15 times, but…
Elizabeth: [00:16:06] Yeah. [sings] Feelings. So it’s, you think you’re defining a feeling by saying I’m feeling ignored, but what you’re actually doing, at least as far as I understand it, is describing an action that you’re perceiving someone else having. So, someone is ignoring you. When the actual feeling is I’m feeling sad or frustrated or hurt. Then what you can do is translate that into a request for action that someone can do that’s a lot more precise than stop ignoring me.
Wailin: [00:16:50] So then did they talk about how to go about tackling some of these communication issues, especially in a workplace setting or just in a practical setting in general? Like, if you are feeling ignored, but then because you’ve been through this training, you’re recognizing that you’re feeling something else, you’re feeling sad or lonely. Did they give you some tips about, then, here’s what you actually say to a person. Because they feel like it doesn’t seem very natural to say like, I am feeling sad to someone, you know?
Elizabeth: [00:17:20] Right. At work.
Wailin: [00:17:22] At work, especially. Goodness.
Elizabeth: [00:17:23] Yeah, and, and that’s a big part of it. And I think it’s also like, part of the practice is integrating it in a way that sounds natural. You know, when you’re learning a new language, you can say pretty much only short declarative sentences. You don’t have enough vocabulary to really flesh things out or make things sound a little more natural. And so the more you practice this kind communication style, the more you are able to integrate it into the way you’re relating to people. I think it becomes a little more natural generally when you’re starting from the first step, which is observation without judgment. And so that feels like something that’s very doable in a workplace setting because, all you’re doing is trying to reflect what you’re observing is going on with somebody else.
Wailin: [00:18:17] Well then when you apply it to your day to day where you’re emailing back and forth with customers during the day, how do you think about NVC? I find it interesting how it’s about, expressing needs and desires in a different way than how we might be used to. Because, I feel like as a customer support person, like your needs are always sublimated to the customer’s needs, right? They’re writing you because they have some need. So then, are you applying NVC to how you think about their need or is there ever a time when you’re expressing a need to the customer? Does that make sense?
Elizabeth: [00:18:52] Yeah, absolutely. You know, it comes up obviously most frequently in situations where someone does seem to be quite upset. It’s just a helpful mechanism, for me at least, to take a step back and sort of see what is underneath what comes across as anger or maybe it is anger. And try to understand that there’s something else going on underneath that, that they feel like whatever’s happening in Basecamp is getting in the way of. And so that just gives me enough space to try to empathize a little bit with how they’re feeling. And then, also, you know, be able to offer solutions and guidance that meet my own need for feeling connected. A huge part of it is recognizing in myself what feelings I might be having and then it makes me better at my job if I know what is happening on my end.
Wailin: [00:19:58] Yeah, that’s a lot. That’s a lot of thinking for interactions that happen very quickly and frequently during the day it seems like.
Elizabeth: [00:20:07] Yeah. So, that’s why it’s helpful I think to practice so that you have in your head just a little bit of a shifting framework so that you don’t feel like you’re just reacting all the time. And so that it becomes more about something you’re doing with the person on the other end. Or, through that connection you’re able to solve whatever the problem at hand is, without it being this huge emotional event. Certainly, for myself, I know that I feel better when I’m not just reacting out of my assumptions about that person. So, even if I don’t know for sure what they’re feeling about it is, it feels better to me on a regular basis if I know that I’m able to give them some space.
Wailin: [00:21:06] Is there a room for humor in NVC?
Elizabeth: [00:21:09] I think so. What you’re aiming for is something that feels and is authentic. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s plenty of room for humor there. I think what feels like habitual or not very compassionate or not very NVC are these things or these ways of kind of interacting with other people in the world that come from a place of scarcity, if that makes sense. Something I’ve kind of been thinking about lately. If everyone sort of feels like they don’t have time or energy or any kind of resource to recognize for themselves, let alone other people what their needs are, then everyone kind of gets this sense of constriction. And I think that is where this win-lose mentality or feeling like everything is a competition. I think that’s where that comes from because there’s this idea that there’s just scarcity. And, something that’s nice about NVC is that there’s an openness that to me is a feeling of abundance and that hopefully in the very best situations can lead to joy and humor and all of that sort of thing.
Wailin: [00:22:31] Yeah, I kind of like the term compassionate communication more than nonviolent. I feel like when you say nonviolent communication, most people would automatically say, well like, well duh, I don’t do violent communication. Of course, I do nonviolent communication cause I’m not a walking around threatening, like explicitly threatening people all day or something. But it’s an interesting way to phrase it where kind of, I guess it’s maybe like quietly violent in its lack of compassion.
Elizabeth: [00:23:00] Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think there are probably a lot of people who prefer that, compassionate communication. It feels more precise to me as well. And I think also, like you’re saying, the phrase nonviolent in this situation just immediately actually conjures it’s opposite. That ends up being a little too black and white for what this is. Because then it makes you think, well, okay, so maybe it’s just that I’m supposed to be nice and that’s nonviolent. And it’s like, sure, yes. But, if we’re looking for connection as a way of having a meaningful communication, then I think something like compassionate communication is a little more precise.
[00:23:44] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.
Shaun: [00:23:48] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.
Wailin: [00:23:53] Special thanks to Claire Jones and Meredith Turk for their help with this episode. If you want to read more about David Wood and Joshua Gubler’s studies or about nonviolent communication, I’ll provide links to resources in the show notes for this episode, which you can find at rework.fm.