The Ethics of Over-The-Top, On-the-Job CEO Rhetoric

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Aug 5, 2014

CEOs are a fountain from which the culture and identity of an organization flows from the top down.

However, they can sometimes get a little “fired up” when it comes to speaking about their competition in front of their employees.

Case in point: Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Ballmer also captured the public’s eye when he allegedly tossed a chair in his office and read the riot act to an employee who left Microsoft for Google, saying, and I quote:

[Expletive deleted] [Google CEO] Eric Schmidt is a [Expletive deleted] [Expletive deleted]. I’m going to [Expletive deleted] bury that guy, I have done it before, and I will do it again. I’m going to [Expletive deleted] kill Google.”

CEOs that turn the dial up to 11

The Ball-Man is just one example of a CEO turning the dial up to 11 and comparing the world of business to a battlefield. Cypress Semiconductors CEO T.J. Rodgers, known for his lively press conferences, had this to say about Synaptics, his direct competitor:

We are going to win in TrueTouch [technology]. Plain and simple… we plan on being here after the nuclear war is over. We plan on being the little crawly creatures that crawl up and conquer the world.”

It doesn’t stop there.

Ahead of a potential buyout, L’Oreal’s CEO Jean-Paul Agon referred to his company’s cash reserves as his “war chest.” And of course, Steve Jobs had his infamous tirade against Samsung, in which he expressed his desire to “go thermonuclear war” over the Android operating system.

We all get a little fired up now and again, but the blog Pacific Standard recently did a great piece on how metaphorical “war” rhetoric from CEOs (i.e. “battle” and “fight” references) can have some strange effects on employees.

They cite a new study from the Journal of Business Ethics which suggests that the use of wartime rhetoric by a competitor’s CEO increases your employees’ willingness to engage in unethical behavior. In an odd twist, they also found that when the employees’ own CEO delivers wartime rhetoric internally, they are less likely to make unethical decisions.

Leadership sets the tone for everyone

The implications of the study aren’t clear-cut. There are some advantages to firing up your staff with wartime rhetoric, it would seem, but it also triggers a kind of self-defense from competitors that can encourage unethical behavior, and vice-versa.

It goes to show how crucial top-down leadership is when building a workplace culture.

Some companies thrive in a competitive environment, and encouraging employees to “conquer the world” may be just the ticket. Others may prefer to rise above the rhetoric. Either way it’s up to the leadership to set the tone and demonstrate the behaviors that will define the culture.

Whatever you do, don’t go full Ballmer. You never go full Ballmer.

This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.

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