Dick was the prototypical Fortune 500 plant manager. Polished. Professional. Buttoned-up. Every gesture contained, every statement considered.
If he experienced negative emotions, he certainly never displayed them to us.
Our plant manufactured books. (At the time, around 140 million books a year.) A small error –a scrap of tape was accidentally left on a piece of film — meant several words were obscured on one page.
While that doesn’t sound like a big deal, over 100,000 books got bound and boxed before the mistake was noticed. Scrapping and re-running would have resulted in a $200,000 spoilage. Repairing them, while extremely labor-intensive, was cheaper.
Late one evening our crews were fixing books when Dick made a rare visit to the shop floor. He gathered us around. He said the right things. He said the professional, conventional, expected — and, frankly, boring — things about the importance of quality, and focus, and attention to detail.
Finally, he droned to a close.
“To finish up, I want to thank each and every one of you for working late,” he said. “We will form a team to perform a root cause analysis and implement a solution so something like this doesn’t happen again.”
He looked away. We assumed he was finished and started to go back to our tables.
Then he spun back around and faced us. His eyes were narrow. His expression was grim. The guy beside me whispered, “Wait, what’s this?”
“We will make damn sure,” Dick said, his voice deeper and harsher, sounding both angry and resolute, “that something like this never happens a-(f-ing)-gain.”
You know that feeling you get when the truly surprising and unexpected occurs? That tingle of electricity that surges through your body?
I felt it. So did the people around me.
Dick never got mad, but Dick was clearly pissed. Dick never showed enthusiasm… but Dick was obviously fired up.
And Dick had cursed. Twice. And not for effect: Smoothly inserting a cuss cuss word in the middle of a normal word showed a definite facility with profanity. He didn’t just cuss; he cussed like us.
Unprofessional? Maybe. But at that moment we realized he genuinely meant the platitudes and cliches and “professional” things he had said. We believed, and trusted, that things would happen.
Subsequent events showed we were right for feeling that way.
So does science: A 2017 study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that occasional swearing can actually make you seem more trustworthy and intelligent.
That finding gibes with research conducted by Henry Evans and Colm Foster, emotional intelligence experts and authors of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments That Matter. According to Evans and Foster, the highest performing people — and highest performing teams — tap into and express their entire spectrum of emotions.
Dick was pissed. Dick was focused on fixing the problem. Dick cared; not only did he have a right to care, he needed to care.
By showing a little emotion — by letting his professional facade slip, if only for a moment –Dick made us trust him.
But while cursing can make you seem more authentic and trustworthy, still: Pick your spots. There’s a difference in cursing at a situation, and cursing at a person. There’s also a difference in perceived offensiveness; some people who may not mind an occasional s-bomb are uncomfortable with any f-bombs. Dick didn’t curse at us. He cursed the situation and added heat to the search for a solution. Both were things we could definitely rally around — and would gladly help work to fix.
Most importantly, he knew his audience.
And so should you. Express the way you feel, but do so in a controlled and harnessed away.
Because science shows authenticity matters — but as with most things, it’s possible to take a good thing too far.