One of the most useful and pragmatic studies over the past decade is that of Baumeister and colleagues, “Bad is stronger than good.” The research finds that the greater power of bad events and bad feedback over good is found in everyday events, major life events, close relationship outcomes, romance, social network patterns, interpersonal interactions and learning processes. That means that bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact that good ones. The research and its applications are so significant that I want to pull out a few issues from the study. I’ll write a blog on its application to a very significant, recurring business context in the next week or so.
I first began to understand this stuff decades ago when, as a preaching professor, I was studying the role of neurotic guilt in preaching. Neurotic guilt is what is felt when a person has no control over an event, but as a result of parenting, advising, teaching or preaching feels that he is culpable anyway. Many of my students, growing up in profoundly legalistic families and churches, became subjects of neurotic guilt on a weekly or even daily basis. Indeed, by the time I got them as twenty-year-olds, most had great difficulty understanding the distinction between moralizing and the Christian Gospel. What parishioners would be getting, I realized, was a shitload of neurotic guilt every Sunday morning. On top of that, ...
I confronted the problem head-on in my classes and developed a model arguing that in order to balance a sinking ship they would need to provide three positives to every negative (3 to 1). Baumeister’s research indicates that I was correct, but that my ratio was off. People need 5 positives to every single negative (5 to 1) in order to attain some sense of appropriate reality and health.
Why should bad be stronger than good?
Since the principle is generalizable across so many different areas of human existence, an explanation for its presence is inherently difficult. The researchers reason that specific, narrowly defined areas will provide concrete explanations at lower levels. So, they punt to evolution to answer the question. And that’s highly appropriate.
They view “bad stronger than good” as an evolutionarily adaptive principle. Organisms that were better attuned to bad things would survive threats and pass along their genes.
As an example, consider the implications of foregoing options or ignoring certain possible outcomes. A person who ignores the possibility of a positive outcome may later experience significant regret at having missed an opportunity for pleasure or advancement, but nothing directly terrible is likely to result. In contrast, a person who ignores danger (the possibility of a bad outcome) even once may end up maimed or dead. Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.
Among the many areas of research the findings on feedback are especially relevant to business and general human experience. When feedback is generally good, people let their defenses down. But, any small bits of criticism emerge as extremely powerful and are remembered exceptionally well. Defensive responses sometimes minimize the long-term impact of bad feedback. Other research finds that a load of negative feedback results in relationships in which the subject of the feedback initially avoids the giver of feedback for a time and filters his communication to that person to protect himself. In addition, the feedback can constrict the person, lowering his productivity.
In addition, when the defenses are down, “bad is clearly stronger than good.” That means that when you give a bit of bad feedback, you’ll want to give attention to positive feedback, and not just with what I call the “generic stroke,” declaring that such and such was a “good job.” Smart managers detail the success, explain their rationale for it, sometimes discuss the process leading up to the success, provide a verbal reward and then ask or suggest how the same process or tool can be used in other situations. This a major shift of managerial perspective. Keeping the ratio in mind, you’ll want to spend five times as much time detailing the good as the bad. Overall, you’ll want to keep track of the actual amount of detailed positive input versus detailed negative input you provide. I’m not suggesting that you ignore bad performance, but often--and paradoxically--good feedback makes bad feedback unnecessary.
Exceptions to the rule?
Given the scope and huge variety of the evidence, you might wonder how general or universal is this pattern. The researchers expected to find some exceptions to the rule that would place limits on their conclusion, but that was not the case.
In sum, it seems that we show an enhanced awareness and respond more quickly to negative information—because it signals a need for change. What that means is that those of us who have developed an adroit ability to perceive and adapt to negative cues are liable to become better able to survive threats and achieve success both in our work and our lives. My coaching experience reveals two important conclusions: it’s tough work for most of us, but it’s also a significant developmental task where we can find success. You can do it, and the payoff can be huge.