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Opinion and Editorial

Cheer up, negativity takes the shine off your life

John Tierney & Roy F. Baumeister (Business of Life)
Filed on January 25, 2020 | Last updated on January 25, 2020 at 10.16 pm

Criticism and penalties are more powerful than praise and rewards at teaching and motivating people. This power is often neglected, particularly by teachers or supervisors who have adopted the 'everybody-gets-a-trophy' philosophy.

Business gurus tell us to strive for "excellence" in our careers and our companies, but there's a surer and faster way to succeed. Instead of aiming to be a superstar, instead of trying to go the extra mile, follow what we call the Negative Golden Rule: It's what you don't do unto others that matters most.

Avoiding mistakes is far more important than doing good. In business, as in the rest of life, our thinking is skewed by a fundamental imbalance that has only recently become clear to scientists: the negativity effect. Also known as the negativity bias, it's the universal tendency of bad emotions and events to affect us more strongly than good ones. When a supervisor gives us a generally positive evaluation, we're liable to obsess over the tiny bit of criticism instead of appreciating the praise. When we walk into a conference room, we immediately spot a hostile face instead of the friendly ones.

In short, bad is stronger than good. This negativity effect evolved because it helped keep our ancestors alert to deadly threats, and we can't change the way our brain is wired. But once we understand this visceral bias, we can use our rational brain to compensate for the power of bad - and also put it to work for us.

By tracking people's moods and interactions and studying the impact of customers' product ratings, researchers have found that it typically takes about four good things to overcome one bad thing. This Rule of Four, as we call it, isn't a universal law of nature, but it's a useful rough gauge to keep in mind. Because of this skewed ratio, you get more leverage by eliminating the negative rather than accentuating the positive. Here are some strategies that can work in any career or business:

Don't overpromise: Most of us tend to promise more than we can deliver because of what psychologists call the planning fallacy, which is our tendency to underestimate how much time and effort will be required for a task. When we don't deliver on time, we hope that our boss or clients will at least appreciate our good intentions-See how much I was trying to do for you! But they won't. The negativity effect is in force. They'll focus not on your good intentions but on the bad result.

Don't expect credit for going the extra mile: When you do more than you promised, your generosity is likely to go unappreciated, as Ayelet Gneezy, a professor of marketing at the University of California, demonstrated in experiments inspired by She'd noticed that when her packages from Amazon arrived earlier than promised, she didn't feel particularly grateful.

Use the power of bad constructively - and deftly: Because of the negativity effect, criticism and penalties are more powerful than praise and rewards at teaching and motivating people. This power is often neglected, particularly by teachers or supervisors who have adopted the "everybody-gets-a-trophy" philosophy.

Even when managers do give criticism, too often they go about it wrong by using the "criticism sandwich." Giving criticism face-to-face is difficult for most people, so it's more pleasant to start with the good stuff. The manager goes on at length about the employee's strengths and achievements before getting to the meat of the criticism.

Then she switches back to conclude with a few nice words and end on a happy note - or so it seems to the manager.

But that's usually not how it feels to the employee. By this time all the opening praise has been forgotten. The employee can't get the bad stuff out of his mind. He's choking on the middle of the sandwich. A conversation that was supposed to inspire better work has left him demoralised.

A better approach is to get the criticism out of the way early, which also happens to be the way most people would rather receive it. When asked if they'd rather hear the good news or the bad news first, most people want to start with the bad news. Once it's delivered, that jolt of negativity puts the brain on high alert, and so the subsequent praise will be remembered along with the criticism. 

- LinkedIn

John Tierney is a contributing editor to City Journal and a contributing science columnist to the New York Times. Roy F. Baumeister is a research psychologist at the University of Queensland. This essay is drawn from their new book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.

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