You Might Not Like it, But Bad is Stronger than Good


By Manie Bosman

The owner of a car dealership I once knew was regarded by most who knew him as a complex man. He demanded that each working day started with a motivational team talk which was compulsory for all employees. An hour later the staff and patrons of the take-away restaurant across the road would roll their eyes and shake their heads as his daily ranting started – furiously shouting and swearing at employees who somehow managed to trigger his extremely sensitive temper. Similar outbursts would erupt throughout the day, but before closing shop he would call everyone in to thank them for their contributions on that day and habitually make an effort to ask for forgiveness if his “terrible temperament” had caused him to offend or hurt anyone on that particular day.

Done and dusted and everything okay? Well no – continuous high employee turnover, low levels of employee engagement, and lack of motivation manifested in a culture of constant internal conflict and poor service delivery which led to the total demise of the dealership within two years. All that in spite of an excellent location and a considerable initial capital investment which should have been enough to carry the business through until it became profitable. The owner had no option but to close the doors and retire, another potentially lucrative business which came to nothing.

So what really went wrong here? This is a classic (perhaps extreme) illustration of how a leader’s behaviour – and I’m not judging him for struggling to align his admirable intentions with his daily behaviour – can trigger a strong threat-disengage response in people’s brains, and ultimately lead to complete failure. In previous posts on neuroleadership, I have explained how our brains react to perceived “threats” and “rewards” in the social environment (in particular our needs for  status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness or fairness) in the same way and with the same intensity with which it reacts to physical threats (e.g. a predator, pain) and rewards (e.g. food, money). What I did not emphasize before was that threat responses have a greater impact and are far more powerful and easier to trigger than reward responses. This means that leaders need to be extremely attentive in managing perceived social threats in the workplace as these could ultimately have a severely destructive impact on the organization’s survival and success.

What I am saying is that in spite of the somewhat romantic notion that many of us hold which states that good always ultimately triumphs over evil, overwhelming evidence from research in different fields indicates that to the human psyche, the impact of “bad” is much stronger than the impact of “good”. In other words, leaders engaged in equal amounts of “good” and “bad” interactions with their followers are heading downhill fast.

In an article published in the Review of General Psychology the authors provide fascinating and very convincing evidence from different fields of study and research that people perceive negative experiences much more intensely than positive experiences. The effect of these negative experiences also seems to have a greater impact and to last longer than the effect of positive ones.

For example, studies have shown that a single traumatic experience can have long-term and even permanent effects on an individual’s health, happiness, outlook, self-worth and general behaviour. On the other hand there is little or no confirmation that a single positive experience can have even nearly the same impact. In one study participants were monitored as they processed the joy of receiving $50 and the anguish of losing $50. The researchers concluded that people were much more troubled over losing the money than they were happy about receiving the same amount.

Consider personal relationships – it could be logically assumed that relationships would last if we have more constructive and positive interactions than negative and destructive interactions. Well, research confirms this, but what might come as a surprise is the ratio between positive and negative interactions which is needed to maintain a steady relationship. Dr. John Gottman, author of 190 published academic articles and author or co-author of 40 books on relationships, studied more than 2,000 married couples over four decades. He proposes that for a relationship to succeed and remain stable, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones by no less than five to one. If the ratio drops lower than that, the relationship is unlikely to last. This means that contrary to what we might expect, the long-term success of our relationships actually depends more on not doing bad things than on doing good things. Gottman’s findings had been confirmed by several other researchers in recent years.

Numerous studies have concluded that we experience negative emotions more intensely than positive emotions. An interesting approach to this was studies which looked at language – the code with which we describe emotions. These studies concluded that negative emotions were more fully represented (there were more words to describe them) than positive emotions. One study which looked at words that described emotions showed that 62% described negative emotions while only 38% described positive emotions. Another looked at all the words in the English language describing personality traits and found that an overwhelming 74% of the total described negative traits.

Even our senses seem to experience negative input more intensely than positive inputs. In one study participants facial expressions were monitored as they were exposed to pleasant, neutral and unpleasant odours. The results indicated that people’s negative reactions to unpleasant odours were much stronger than their positive reactions to pleasant odours.

Perhaps most unsettling for those of us who are parents is that bad experiences have a far greater impact on a child’s development than good ones. Research shows that in the long-term the damaging consequences of, for instance, child abuse or sexual exploitation are more durable than any comparable positive childhood experience. Plainly put – the negative effects of bad parenting and bad childhood experiences have a much stronger impact on our lives than good parenting and positive experiences.

This tendency of bad having a stronger impact than good continues into nearly every sphere of our existence. Bad first impressions last longer and are harder to change than good ones; bad stereotypes are quicker to form and have a stronger influence on our behaviour than good ones; bad feedback has a much more profound impact on how we view our performance than positive feedback; the memory and effect of bad social interactions last longer than that of good social interactions; and the impact of bad health is stronger than that of experiencing good health.

So where does this leave us? Neuroscience has shown us that our brains and the brains of the people that we interact with are strongly influenced by how it perceives the social environment in which we operate. When it perceives a social threat (real or not) it goes into “survival mode” – functioning well below its best when needed to make decisions, remember, solve problems or collaborate with others. However, because we experience “bad” so much more intensely than we experience “good” (at a ratio of 5:1), we need to go further than just maintaining an equal balance in our work relationships. Routinely treating people badly and then asking for forgiveness is not an option. If we really want them engaged and committed we need to minimize negative interactions and create a culture where positive social interactions abound.

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About Manie Bosman

Manie Bosman is Founder and CEO of the Strategic Leadership Institute. He is a leadership development consultant specializing in the emerging field of neuroleadership. Based in Pretoria, South Africa, Manie has more than 18 years of international experience in cross-cultural interaction, diversity management, change management, public speaking, communication, corporate training and team development. He holds a Masters of Arts in Organizational Leadership and believes that effective leadership is the key determiner of success in any venture, group or organization.
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