Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

We're living in very peculiar times.

Our public discourse is darker, nastier, angrier and more dangerous than in any era most can remember.

At the same time, we're supposed to be inordinately sensitive toward the tiniest insults, aggressions and even, well, jokes.

What is a leader to do? 

Be sickeningly lovely to everyone or berate their charges to within an inch of a class-action lawsuit?

Ultimately, a leader wants to be successful, so that their stock can generate the maximum number of yachts.

What words, however, can produce the maximal effect? How unpleasant should a leader be in order to get results?

I'm moved to offer a potential answer on reading the essences of an extraordinary piece of research from the University of California, Berkeley.

It has a tantalizing title. Leadership in the locker room: How the intensity of leaders' unpleasant affective displays shapes team performance.

The idea of the research was quite simple.

The researchers persuaded the coaches of 23 high school and college basketball teams to provide 304 recordings of their half-time talks. 

Next, they considered whether constructive criticism or maniacal rage led to better results.

There's a certain legend, isn't there, that the coaches who get the best results are the ones who have copious amounts of saliva still dripping from the sides of their mouths after a hell-raising diatribe aimed at their players.

I'm extremely fond of academic language, especially academics' penchant for writing single sentences that go on longer than the average preacher.

Please let me quote these researchers' lengthy conclusion: 

Our results show support for the prediction and suggest that the curvilinear effect of leaders' unpleasant affective displays may be explained by team members' redirection of attention and approach, which is positively associated with team members' effort at moderate levels of leader unpleasantness but leads to lower effort at high and low levels of leader unpleasantness.

In essence, then, get mad at your employees if you want them to perform better. In these cases, the more a coach berated, the more their team outscored their opponents.

As Berkeley Haas Professor Emeritus Barry Staw put it

That was even true if the team was already ahead at halftime. Rather than saying,'You're doing great, keep it up,' it's better to say, 'I don't care if you're up by 10 points, you can play better than this.'

However.

There's a certain point at which your nastiness will really put your employees off, to the point that their performance will suffer.

Explained Staw: 

Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk, but when you have a very important project or a merger that needs to get done over the weekend, negative emotions can be a very useful arrow to have in your quiver to drive greater performance.

Perhaps, though, you find it hard to express negative emotions.

Perhaps you grew up in California and prefer a touch of passive aggression, rather than harsh words or even full-throated ranting.

Oh, please do give me a break.

Everyone has deep negativity buried within. All you have to do is let it rip. 

Published on: Sep 2, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.