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Bad is Stronger Than Good

by George Garrett, Featured Contributor

THERE USED TO BE an advertising axiom of…sex sells. Now with instant information, and a population that has been desensitized to such things, I think the new mantra is “negativity sells”.negative-positive

Many may not know about Dan and Chip Heath, but a few years ago they wrote about “finding the bright spots” in our work and lives. But finding those bright spots requires effort. Their research documented a number of cases, which prove how hard it is to overcome the strong pull of negativity.

In one of their studies they analyzed 558 words in the English language that denote emotions, and found that 62% were negative (versus only 38% that were positive). Across the board, no matter the situation or domain, we seem to be wired to focus on bad rather than good. I am not certain where this wiring begins, but perhaps it begins in our formative years. Anyone who has ever spent time around a toddler in their “terrible two’s” fully knows what I am talking about. They hear far more negatives than positives which they may carry forward.

The Heath brothers also learned of other significant things in their research.

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  • People who were shown photos of good and bad events spent far more time viewing the bad.
  • When people hear something bad about someone else, they pay more attention to it, remember it longer and weigh it more when assessing that person. This tendency is called “positive-negative asymmetry.”
  • In other studies of how people interpret and explain events in their lives, such as how fans interpret sporting events or how students describe their typical days reveal some interesting points. Across multiple domains, be it work, politics, sports or relationships, people were more likely to spontaneously bring up negative versus positive events.

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This is a very unsettling, but it happens.

“Bad is stronger than good,” so the Heath’s concluded. Need more proof? Just look at the number of attack ads during any given election cycle. What do we remember? We remember the negative. It’s no wonder performance feedback is usually aimed at what’s not working. Yet, we can override this brain tendency and focus on the positive, at least well enough to create successful relationships at work and home.

Another researcher, John Gottman, studied marital conversations extensively. He found that couples who sustain long-term marriages use language that reflects five times more positive statements than negative ones. In fact, he calls this the magic ratio AND he claims it will accurately predict if a marriage will last. He urges leaders to use a ratio of 5:1 positive statements in conversations with people.

It has been demonstrated that we spend more time scaling the negative in performance than in looking for those bright spots. We must be cognizant of inherent tendencies to find something wrong, rather than focusing on positive attributes In our book, “Evolved…Engaging People, Enhancing Success” we provide a real example of how easy it is to lean to the negative. A person we know had his annual performance review and his boss rated him highly, very highly, but just couldn’t stay away from the negative. In fact he told our friend, “If I had anything negative to say, it would be you are too perfect”. Think about that for a moment! Too perfect?

We need to understand the courage is takes to convey a different thought or idea. We need to understand how we impact others whenever we come across negatively. Some of these effects are life lasting.

Each of us carries enough scars from negativity in our lives. To put it simply, you can’t give praise and recognition if you see only the negative and only focus on what’s broken. One of the most powerful questions we can ask ourselves is “Do I regularly focus on the positive?” Emotionally and socially intelligent people understand that positive leaders who help their employees to be fully engaged create happier at-work situations.

So…What actions can you take today to be a more positive leader? What activities unleash people’s strengths? In today’s bustling and busy world, organization’s need more great managers and leaders. The leadership pipeline is fairly thin. You can become a leader who models emotional and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your organization.

It starts with finding those bright spots and continues with the magic ratio.

The founder of IBM, Thomas Watson once said…

Really big people are, above everything else, courteous, considerate and generous—not just to some people in some circumstances—but to everyone all the time.”


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George Garrett
George Garretthttp://futurefocusgroup.com/
GEORGE is a founding member of Future Focus Group, LLC, based in Houston, TX. George has spent his entire career in human resources leadership and consulting. He has contributed to, and written extensively, for several publications in both the US and Europe. He is certified by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) as a Senior Professional in Human Resources. George also holds a certification in Employee Relations Law from the Institute for Applied Management and Law. He is a Distinguished Toastmaster through Toastmasters International and delivers powerful, engaging talks regarding the changing field of human resources. George is a Texas native and co-author of “Evolved…Engaging People, Enhancing Success”, released in late 2014.

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