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  • 09.13.10

Bad Is Stronger Than Good: Why Good Bosses Eliminate the Negative First

Of all the tunes in the Johnny Mercer songbook, the most generally beloved must be “Accentuate the Positive”–whether your favorite cover is Bing Crosby’s, Willie Nelson’s, or someone else’s. Chances are that you yourself could summon up the chorus word for word (and click here if you want accompaniment).

Of all the tunes in the Johnny Mercer songbook, the most generally
beloved must be “Accentuate the Positive”–whether your favorite cover
is Bing Crosby’s, Willie Nelson’s, or someone else’s. Chances are that
you yourself could summon up the chorus word for word (and click here if you want accompaniment).

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You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

It trips off the tongue so easily that you might not even notice that
Mercer is telling you to do two things, not just one. Eliminating the
negative, as any skilled leader can tell you, is not just the flipside
of accentuating the positive. It’s a whole different set of activities.
For someone with people to manage, accentuating the positive means
recognizing productive and constructive effort, for example, and helping
people discover and build on their strengths. Eliminating the negative,
for the same boss, might mean tearing down maddening obstacles and
shielding people from abuse.

Certainly, every leader should try to do both. Yet, given that every
boss has limited time, attention, and resources, an interesting question
is: which should take priority? A growing body of behavioral science
research provides a pretty clear answer here: It’s more important to
eliminate the negative.

The seminal academic paper here is called “Bad is Stronger Than Good” [PDF]. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues draw on a huge pile of peer-reviewed
studies to show that negative information, experiences, and people have
far deeper impacts than positive ones. In the context of romantic
relationships and marriages, for example, the truth is stark: unless
positive interactions outnumber negative interactions by five to one,
odds are that the relationship will fail.

Scary, isn’t it? Yet it was confirmed by several studies that, among
relationships where the proportion of negative interactions exceeds this
one-in-five rule, divorce rates go way up and marital satisfaction goes
way down. The implication for all of us in long-term relationships is
both instructive and daunting: If you have a bad interaction with your
partner, following up with a positive one (or apparently two, three, or
four) won’t be enough to dig out of that hole. Average five or more and
you might stay in his or her good graces.

Studies on workplaces suggest, along similar lines, that bosses and
companies will get more bang for the buck if they focus on eliminating
the negative rather than accentuating the positive. For some time, I’ve
been campaigning for a certain form of this, urging companies to eliminate the worst kind of colleagues from their workplaces. Research by Will Felps and his colleagues on “bad apples” is instructive. (You can hear him talk about it on This American Life).
Felps decided to look at the effect of toxic colleagues on work groups,
including what I would call deadbeats (“withholders of effort”),
downers (who “express pessimism, anxiety, insecurity, and irritation,” a
toxic breed of de-energizers), and assholes (who violate “interpersonal
norms of respect”). His estimates that a team with just one person in
any of these categories suffers a performance disadvantage of 30% to 40%
compared to teams that have no bad apples.

Similarly, another study by
Andrew Miner and his colleagues tracked employees’ moods, and found
that the impact on an employee’s feelings of a negative interaction with
the boss or a coworker was five times stronger than that of a positive
interaction.

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So, negative interactions (and the bad apples that provoke them) pack
a real wallop in relationships at work and elsewhere. They are
distracting, emotionally draining, and deflating. When a group does
interdependent work, rotten apples drag down and infect everyone else.
Unfortunately, grumpiness, nastiness, laziness, and stupidity are
remarkably contagious.

My chapter in Good Boss, Bad Boss
on “Stars and Rotten Apples” opens with the story of how I got to know a
CEO named Paul Purcell. It was after his company, Baird, had landed on Fortune magazine’s list of the “100 Best Places to Work”. Fortune briefly explained,
“What makes it so great? They tout the “no-a**hole rule” at this
financial services firm; candidates are interviewed extensively, even by
assistants who will be working with them.” Having written an entire book on that topic, I immediately contacted Leslie Dixon, their HR chief, and she introduced me to Paul Purcell. As I wrote in Good Boss, Bad Boss:

Paul told me that he had seen and suffered destructive
assholes in past jobs, so when he got to Baird, he vowed to build a
jerk-free workplace. When I asked how he enforced the rule, Paul said
that most jerks were screened-out via background checks and interviews
before they met him. But he did his own filtering too, ‘During the
interview, I look them in the eye, and tell them, “If I discover that
you are an asshole, I am going to fire you.”‘ He added, “Most candidates
aren’t fazed by this, but every now and then, one turns pale, and we
never see them again–they find some reason to back out of the search.”
When I asked Paul what kinds of jerks are most poisonous, he said: “The
worst assholes consistently do two things: 1.Put their self-interest
ahead of co-workers and 2. Put their self-interest ahead of the
company.”

Clearly this is someone who didn’t need any research to tell him that
“bad is stronger than good.” By refusing to tolerate selfish jerks,
Paul Purcell gives us a great model of eliminating the negative. And the
fact that he doesn’t seem to procrastinate when it comes to doing the
unpleasant work of dealing with destructive people and poor performers
is another benefit backed up by research. Consider a classic study [PDF]
by Charles O’Reilly and Barton Weitz on how supervisors handled
“problematic” sales employees (in which category they placed salespeople
guilty of bad attitudes as well as other problems like low productivity
and lack of punctuality). Bosses of the most productive groups
confronted problems directly and quickly, issued more warnings and
formal punishments, and promptly fired employees when warnings failed.
The words and deeds of these no-nonsense bosses inspired performance
because they made crystal clear that they would not tolerate crummy
work. Related studies of punishment in the workplace show that employees
respect bosses more when they punish destructive characters more
swiftly and intensely–so long as they are fair and consistent.

The upshot is, if you are the boss, doing such “dirty work” is part
of your job–and although you might not enjoy playing the heavy, doing
it doesn’t make you the jerk. If you can’t or won’t do it, either you
ought to be in another line of work or, at least, you ought to team up
with someone who can.

With further apologies to Johnny Mercer, sure, as boss you should
spread joy up to the maximum, but your main task is to bring gloom down
to the minimum. Get that priority straight, and set the stage for your
people to do their best work. Or pandemonium is liable to walk upon the
scene.

Note: I originally posted this over at HBR.org as number 10 of my list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe. Some of the comments over there are from people who don’t quite buy this perspective, and think that accentuating the positive is job one for a boss. And part of my agrees with these concerns, as in some ways, asking what is more important–accentuating the positive or eliminating the negative–is a silly question. It is akin to asking “what is more important, your heart or your brain?” But an evidence-based perspective suggests, at the least, that step 1 for leading a great team is getting rid of (or repairing) bad actions, procedures, and people and step 2 is amplifying and importing “good” stuff.

Reprinted from Work Matters

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Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at twitter.com/work_matters.

About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility.

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