Bad is Stronger than Good: Why Eliminating the Negative is More Important than Accentuating the Positive
I had a piece appear today in the Wall Street Journal called"How a Few Bad Apples Can Ruin Everything," a topic I have written on before and her, especially, in Good Boss, Bad Boss. A fun discussion of bad apples can also be found on This American Life; check out the opening interview of this episodewith Will Felps, who has done some cool research on how bad apples have a disproportionately negative effect on group performance.
The underlying theory and evidence for my argument that bad apples do so much damage, and more broadly destructive emotions and incompetence undermine performance and well-being so much, that the first order of business for any boss is to eliminate the negative rather than accentuate the positive (I am not discouraging goodness and excellence... but getting rid of the bad is importance for achieving greatness). This perspective is inspired by a masterpiece of an academic article called "Bad is Stronger Than Good," which was published in 2001 by Roy F. Baumeister and three other colleagues. If you want to really dig in, I invite you to download Bad is Stronger Than Good.. it is very detailed but readable.
Essentially, the authors meticulously go through topic after topic -- personal relationships, learning, memory, self-image, and numerous others -- and show that bad packs a much stronger impact than good. They review a couple hundred diverse studies to make this point, and as they say at the end, the consistency of their findings about the disproportionate impact of bad things (compared to the power of good things)-- like negative emotions, hostility, abuse, dysfunctional acts, destructive relationships, serious injuries and accidents, incompetence, and on and on -- is depressingly consistent across study after after study.
One implication for managers and numerous other influencers in organizations is that, while bringing and breeding great people, and encouraging civility, competence, effort, and other kinds of goodness is an important part of the job, such efforts will be undermined if you aren't constantly vigilant about eliminating the negative, which includes dealing with people who are bad apples. Baumeister and his colleagues also do suggest that another implication is sheer volume -- overwhelming strong bad stuff with lots of weak good stuff. I will discuss that approach at the end of this post.
By coincidence, my doctoral course on leadership is reading and discussing this article today, so I re-read it closely this weekend, and it just knocks my socks off. Here are just a few quotes from the article that got my attention:
This one explains why bad could be so much stronger -- we are selected to focus on it:
From our perspective, it is evolutionarily adaptive for bad to be stronger than good. We believe that throughout our evolutionary history, organisms that were better attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats and, consequently, would have increased probability of passing along their genes. (p. 325)
On bad versus events:
A diary study by David, Green, Martin, and Suls (1997) examined the effects of everyday good and bad events, as well as personality traits. Undesirable (bad) events had more pervasive effects on subsequent mood than desirable (good) ones. Although each type of event influenced the relevant mood (i.e., bad events influenced bad mood, and good events predicted good mood) to similar degrees, bad events had an additional effect on the opposite-valence mood that was lacking for good events. In other words, bad events influenced both good and bad moods, whereas good events influenced only good moods. (p. 327)
How long the impact of everyday events lasts was studied by Sheldon, Ryan, and Reis (1996). Bad events had longer lasting effects. In their data, having a good day did not have any noticeable effect on a person's well-being the following day, whereas having a bad day did carry over and influence the next day. (p.327)
On close relationships. Note the implication is that if you do something bad in a close relationship, you've got to do at least five good things (on average) to make up for it:
On the basis of these results, Gottman (1994) has proposed a revealing diagnostic index for evaluating relationships: He proposed that in order for a relationship to succeed, positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad ones by at least five to one. If the ratio falls below that, the relationship is likely to fail and breakup. This index converges well with the thrust of our argument: Bad events are so much stronger than good ones that the good must outnumber the bad in order to prevail. Gottman's index suggests that bad events are on average five times as powerful as good ones, at least with regard to close relationships. (p. 329)
The article goes on and on in this vein, digging into seemingly every possible nuance, and constantly concluding that "bad is stronger than good.: Here are a some excerpts from the wrap-up toward the end:
Let us briefly summarize the evidence. In everyday life, bad events have stronger and more lasting consequences than comparable good events. Close relationships are more deeply and conclusively affected by destructive actions than by constructive ones, by negative communications than positive ones, and by conflict than harmony. Additionally, these effects extend to marital satisfaction and even to the relationship's survival (vs. breakup or divorce). Even outside of close relationships, unfriendly or conflictual interactions are seen as stronger and have bigger effects than friendly,harmonious ones. Bad moods and negative emotions have stronger effects than good ones on cognitive processing, and the bulk of affect regulation efforts is directed at escaping from bad moods (e.g., as opposed to entering or prolonging good moods). That suggests that people's desire to get out of a bad mood is stronger than their desire to get into a good one. (p. 362)
Bad parenting can be stronger than genetic influences; good parenting is not. Research on social support has repeatedly found that negative, conflictual behaviors in one's social network have stronger effects than positive, supportive behaviors. Bad things receive more attention and more thorough cognitive processing than good things. When people first learn about one another, bad information has a significantly stronger impact on the total impression than any comparable good information. (p.362)
Bad stereotypes and reputations are easier to acquire, and harder to shed, than good ones. Bad feedback has stronger effects than good feedback. Bad health has a greater impact on happiness than good health, and health itself is more affected by pessimism (the presence or absence of a negative outlook) than optimism (the presence or absence of a positive outlook). (p.362)
Their closing paragraph, implies -- albeit weakly-- to one solution to overcoming the power of bad.
Although it may seem pessimistic to conclude that bad is stronger than good, we do not think that such pessimism is warranted. As we have suggested, there are several reasons to think that it may be highly adaptive for human beings to respond more strongly to bad than good. In the final analysis, then, the greater power of bad may itself be a good thing. Moreover, good can still triumph in the end by force of numbers. Even though a bad event may have a stronger impact than a comparable good event, many lives can be happy by virtue of having far more good than bad events.
I think this implied solution of working extra hard to crank up the good to drown out the bad is certainly part of the answer. But, to me, another and probably more effective solution for managers is to work doggedly to screen out and stop bad people and bad behavior at every stage. This means dealing with it via big things like recruiting, selection, training, rewards and punishments, and removing people; and, just as important, paying attention to the little things like giving people feedback when they are destructive. Another implication I emphasize is that self-awareness is important so that we realize when we are being bad and damaging others -- and damn well better work on changing our attitudes and actions.
I know this is a long and detailed post. My view is that you can read the lighter and more bouncy piece in the Wall Street Journal, so I thought I would use this post to geek out a bit and dig into the underlying research.