Every so often, you encounter academic research that snaps into place a whole bunch of tensions, issues, and problems that you’ve noticed but haven’t been able to understand. That happened to me when I read a new book called The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It. The authors of the book, renowned research psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and award-winning journalist John Tierney, offer lessons from social science about life, love, parenting, even politics.
For me, though, the book provided eye-opening insights into a set of questions about business and leadership that I have been wrestling with for years—questions that get to the heart of why so many organizations find it difficult to transform themselves despite the best of intentions.
Why do so many big, established, well-funded companies remain so cautious and conservative, even in the face of radical technology advances and head-spinning disruptions in the marketplace? Why is change so hard?
How is it that just one discordant colleague, a single voice of negativity in a business unit or project team that is upbeat and enthusiastic, can cast such a long shadow on group morale? How does one bad apple always seem to spoil the whole bunch?
John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister help us wrestle with these and other questions about strategy, culture, and creativity by starting with a defining principle of human psychology —bad is stronger than good. We humans are wired in such a way, they argue, that there is a “universal tendency for negative events and emotions to affect us more strongly than positive ones.” We are “devastated by a word of criticism” but “unmoved by a shower of praise.” We “see the hostile face in the crowd” but “miss all the friendly smiles.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, as a parent, an author, and a public speaker, these observations ring painfully true. But this built-in “negativity bias” also has huge implications for us in our roles as leaders, colleagues, and change agents.
For one thing, it explains why so many organizations remain so reluctant to change, even in the face of massive evidence that the risk of trying something new is much lower than the cost of clinging to what’s worked in the past. Too many of us are “safety junkies,” according to Tierney and Baumeister. “We pay so much attention to bad things — reliving them, imagining them, avoiding them — that we let fear run our lives and become irrationally cautious.”
The social-science term for this mindset is “loss aversion”—most of us prefer to play not to lose rather than play to win, because we feel the sting of defeat so much more intensely than the pleasure of success. But for leaders who want their companies to win, especially in fast-changing, hyper-competitive fields, allowing their organizations to remain addicted to safety is the ultimate losing proposition. I’ve found that the best leaders infuse their organizations with what John Gardner, the legendary leadership scholar, called “tough-minded optimism”—excitement, enthusiasm, grit. The future, he insisted, “is rarely shaped by people who don’t themselves believe in the future.” Effective leaders keep their people excited about the future and break their addiction to safety.
The power of bad also explains why it is so hard to sustain innovation over the long term, even when things are basically going well. It turns out that the impact on morale of even a small setback—a project that goes over budget, a product that doesn’t deliver quite as promised—can overwhelm all the successes that surround it. Tierney and Baumeister call it The Rule of Four: “It takes four good things to overcome one bad thing.”
I’ve found that the most effective leaders go out of their way to remind colleagues of the progress they are making, to celebrate small wins as frequently and colorfully as they can. There’s a reason so many startups ring a bell (or lately, it seems, a gong) every time they land a new customer. Much of our day-to-day experience in business, from building a new company to changing an established one, is tinged with disappointment—the customer we didn’t land, the meeting that didn’t go well. The Rule of Four means leaders should make it a point to emphasize (even over-emphasize) good news in order to drown out the bad news.
The power of bad explains one final element of the hard work of big change, this one more personal than strategic. I’ve always been struck by how a small number of discordant voices inside a company—a loud skeptic, a died-in-the-wool traditionalist—can slow down or paralyze a change program that enjoys widespread support. As it turns out, one “bad apple” really can spoil the whole bunch, so it’s urgent for leaders to rid their teams of the three different kinds of bad apples that Tierney and Baumeister describe: the jerk, the slacker, and the downer.
Researchers have documented the positive impact of “social support”—friends, colleagues, neighbors who pump you up and cheer you on. Researchers have also documented the negative impact of “social undermining”—people who gossip, carry grudges, and otherwise bring you down. Not surprisingly, “Social undermining was found to have a bigger impact than social support.” So leaders with great ideas and good intentions won’t succeed unless they are prepared to deal with their bad apples.
Ultimately, the good news is that bad news doesn’t have to drag down your company or your team. But it does require all of us, as executives, entrepreneurs, and change agents, to infuse well-designed strategies with a healthy dose of psychology. In business, as in life, it’s hard to get to the good unless you overcome the power of bad.
Excerpt Bill Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company and author, most recently, of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways.