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How a CEO's Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the eyes of many CEOs, business is a battlefield, especially when a rival company's widgets too closely resemble their own.

Steve Jobs once famously seethed about Samsung's Android: "I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong. ... I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this."

After learning that a top engineer was decamping to Google, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer allegedly flung a chair across the office, before proclaiming: “Fucking Eric Schmidt is a fucking pussy. I’m going to fucking bury that guy.... I’m going to fucking kill Google.” Maybe not unexpected from the guy who professed this kind of theatrical excitement about his company:

Even though operating a multi-billion dollar company might be more delicately analogized to appearing in a chess or polo match, somehow executives prefer to see missile launches and fallen soldiers where there are dull earnings reports. But does all this rough-and-tumble cowboy bluster get their team any closer to their goals? To that 8th oceanfront property in Belize? Perhaps. But it also may have the unintended consequence of inspiring corruption among rivals.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Business Ethics, war rhetoric may spur "a 'self defense' approach that justifies a wide-range of behavior typically not justifiable under normal circumstances" in those who work for competing companies. Oddly enough, it may also inspire increased ethical behavior among employees of the speechmaker herself.

In one experiment, the researchers, Brigham Young University's Joshua Gubler and David Wood and George Washington University's Nathan Kalmoe, had more than 100 subjects read imaginary violent ("war," "battle," "fight" references) or non-violent speeches delivered by CEOs from their own or rival companies. They then gauged employees' willingness to rate and write negative online reviews of another company's products. The subjects who read violent speeches from rival CEOS were "more likely to make unethical decisions." But "when an employee’s own CEO uses violent rhetoric, employees are less likely to make unethical decisions."

A second experiment that tested subjects' willingness to flout company policy on approval of customers' credit scores confirmed that people acted more ethically after receiving an email about winning a sales "battle" from a direct supervisor.

The implications of the findings are difficult to suss out. Should business leaders opt for more war-time pep talks in hopes that their own employees will remain ethical and risk that their competitors may stray into unethical territory? Should battle speeches be kept confidential? "Language that is likely to remain in the firm can be beneficial, at least in terms of ethical decision-making," the researchers explain in an email. "If the language is likely to be heard by competitors as well, the choice becomes less clear because of competing effects."

Whatever the case, I'm guilty of this rhetoric too. I've congratulated colleagues for "espionage" and pushed a writer to ensure that we were "thoroughly pulverizing [rival] efforts." Oops, probably should've kept that confidential.