I vividly remember the first time my boss dropped an F-bomb. It wasn’t directed at me, but it was a sign of exasperation with a problem we were trying to figure out together. It threw me, but at the same time, instantly made me feel better – this was a “f’ing” hard assignment and she acknowledged it. Seeing her slightly unfiltered gave me permission to let my own guard down a little, to be more... human.
Unlocking the power of 'solidarity signals'
A recent New York Times article validates this effect – a well-timed swear word, even in some work settings, can show vulnerability, create comfort, and demonstrate solidarity. In a professional context, these “solidarity signals” aren’t just about letting off steam – they can actually strengthen team culture and performance.
So, can you swear your way to a better culture? Not exactly. But you can harness the power of solidarity signals – which take many forms beyond swearing – to push past corporate formalities into a more natural, human way of working.
Putting solidarity signals to work
To be effective, the solidarity signals you put in place must...
1. Be modeled
Leadership sets the tone and establishes norms that ripple through the organization. Most employees will look to their managers and leaders for permission, either explicit or implicit.
2. Be invited
Have you ever been on a team where one leader is so free-wheeling and dominant that it shuts down the contributions of others? We call it the “Don Draper” effect. Leaders have to give space for others to crack a joke or share a story – otherwise it’s a one-person show.
3. Be real
If profanity isn’t your style, don’t force it for the sake of being a “cool boss.” Solidarity can’t be contrived or over-thought. It’s got to be true to the person and the moment, or it’ll fall flat.
The ripple effects of solidarity signals
With all of that in mind, how can you tell if solidarity signals are actually making an impact? How can you gauge the comfort level within your organization? A good place to start would be running through this list and asking whether on the job, you or your colleagues feel comfortable enough to…
- Make a mistake and not have to conceal it?
- Ask questions without fear of humiliation?
- Talk about your significant other, children, or hobbies?
- Ask for help when you get stuck?
- Voice your ideas in any meeting you’re invited to?
- Have a candid conversation with your manager about your performance outside of an annual review?
- Crack a joke in a meeting?
- Share your favorite movie, TV show, or music without judgement?
If your answer to any of these is no, maybe it's time to let an “oh $#*!” fly. Just remember that someone might be listening. And that’s probably a good thing.