Sports coaches and managers call it “bulletin board material.” It’s insulting stuff that opposing athletes may have told journalists, or tweeted, about your team. You know, like, “Little Leaguers could hit better than they do.” In other words, trash talk.

If you’re in sales, and you’re halfway smart, you realize you’re in a competitive situation not unlike professional sports. Do you want to give your competitors bulletin board material, something they can stare at while vowing to whup your behind? Does it matter if you do?

Well, according to recent research by management professors at Georgetown and Penn’s Wharton School, trash talking does matter, and not in a good way. As coaches and managers have intuited forever, it fires up your competition and focuses them extra-hard on the task of beating you.

Cooperative vs. competitive

The researchers recruited 178 volunteers to carry out a simple, computer-based series of tasks. The participants were paired up, and directed to chat electronically with their opposite number. Then the researchers did something tricky. They substituted a ringer,  — a confederate of the researchers — for the chat partner. As a result, the participants got a new series of messages that the researchers controlled.

Each person got three messages. The first was the same across the board: “Hey, it looks like we’ll be competing against each other in the next task.”

But the next two differed. Some people received the relatively neutral, “So whoever does the task better gets some bonus money,” and “Let’s see what happens.” But others got trash-talk messages: “Just so you know, I’m taking that bonus money. You’re definitely going to lose,” and “I’m smarter than you… I’m faster than you… I’m going to beat you so bad.”

Stepping up their game

The researchers wanted to see whether the participants who were the targets of trash talk would work harder to beat their disrespectful “opponents.” And they did. In fact, they exerted 34% more effort — as measured by tasks completed correctly in a two-minute period — than those who received the neutral messages.

Commenting on the result, Wharton’s Maurice Schweitzer explained, “When people are the targets of these kinds of messages, what we find is that they become much more motivated.” And the reason for this motivation isn’t complicated. It’s pretty much pure rivalry. In fact, the researchers found that the targets of the trash talk perceived a 49% stronger rivalry between themselves and their chat partner than those who got neutral messages.

So is that what you want to do? Motivate the competition? Sure, there are lots of other reasons not to bad-mouth competitors, notably the fact that you don’t want prospects to see you as a whiny little Negative Nelly. But when your competitors hear what you’ve been saying about them — and usually they will — they have a strong reason to pull out all the stops to beat you for the business.

This is why somebody coined the proverb, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”

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