Of all the tunes in the Johnny Mercer songbook, the most generally beloved must be “Accentuate the Positive” — whether your favorite cover is Bing Crosby’s, Willie Nelson’s, or someone else’s. Chances are that you yourself could summon up the chorus word for word (and click here if you want accompaniment).
You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
It trips off the tongue so easily that you might not even notice that Mercer is telling you to do two things, not just one. Eliminating the negative, as any skilled leader can tell you, is not just the flipside of accentuating the positive. It’s a whole different set of activities. For someone with people to manage, accentuating the positive means recognizing productive and constructive effort, for example, and helping people discover and build on their strengths. Eliminating the negative, for the same boss, might mean tearing down maddening obstacles and shielding people from abuse.
Certainly, every leader should try to do both. Yet, given that every boss has limited time, attention, and resources, an interesting question is: which should take priority? A growing body of behavioral science research provides a pretty clear answer here: It’s more important to eliminate the negative.
The seminal academic paper here is called “Bad is Stronger Than Good” [pdf]. Roy Baumeister and his colleagues draw on a huge pile of peer-reviewed studies to show that negative information, experiences, and people have far deeper impacts than positive ones. In the context of romantic relationships and marriages, for example, the truth is stark: unless positive interactions outnumber negative interactions by five to one, odds are that the relationship will fail.
Scary, isn’t it? Yet it was confirmed by several studies that, among relationships where the proportion of negativeinteractions exceeds this one-in-five rule, divorce rates go way up and marital satisfaction goes way down. The implication for all of us in long-term relationships is both instructive and daunting: If you have a bad interaction with your partner, following up with a positive one (or apparently two, three, or four) won’t be enough to dig out of that hole. Average five or more and you might stay in his or her good graces.
Studies on workplaces suggest, along similar lines, that bosses and companies will get more bang for the buck if they focus on eliminating the negative rather than accentuating the positive. For some time, I’ve been campaigning for a certain form of this, urging companies to eliminate the worst kind of colleagues from their workplaces. Research by Will Felps and his colleagues on “bad apples” is instructive. (You can hear him talk about it on This American Life). Felps decided to look at the effect of toxic colleagues on work groups, including what I would call deadbeats (“withholders of effort”), downers (who “express pessimism, anxiety, insecurity, and irritation,” a toxic breed of de-energizers), and assholes (who violate “interpersonal norms of respect”). His estimates that a team with just one person in any of these categories suffers a performance disadvantage of 30% to 40% compared to teams that have no bad apples.
Similarly, another study by Andrew Miner and his colleagues tracked employees’ moods, and found that the impact on an employee’s feelings of a negative interaction with the boss or a coworker was five times stronger than that of a positive interaction.
So, negative interactions (and the bad apples that provoke them) pack a real wallop in relationships at work and elsewhere. They are distracting, emotionally draining, and deflating. When a group does interdependent work, rotten apples drag down and infect everyone else. Unfortunately, grumpiness, nastiness, laziness, and stupidity are remarkably contagious.
My chapter in Good Boss, Bad Boss on “Stars and Rotten Apples” opens with the story of how I got to know a CEO named Paul Purcell. It was after his company, Baird, had landed on Fortune magazine’s list of the “100 Best Places to Work”. Fortune briefly explained, “What makes it so great? They tout the “no-a**hole rule” at this financial services firm; candidates are interviewed extensively, even by assistants who will be working with them.” Having written an entire bookon that topic, I immediately contacted Leslie Dixon, their HR chief, and she introduced me to Paul Purcell. As I wrote inGood Boss, Bad Boss:
Paul told me that he had seen and suffered destructive assholes in past jobs, so when he got to Baird, he vowed to build a jerk-free workplace. When I asked how he enforced the rule, Paul said that most jerks were screened-out via background checks and interviews before they met him. But he did his own filtering too, ‘During the interview, I look them in the eye, and tell them, “If I discover that you are an asshole, I am going to fire you.”‘ He added, “Most candidates aren’t fazed by this, but every now and then, one turns pale, and we never see them again — they find some reason to back out of the search.” When I asked Paul what kinds of jerks are most poisonous, he said: “The worst assholes consistently do two things: 1.Put their self-interest ahead of co-workers and 2. Put their self-interest ahead of the company.”
Clearly this is someone who didn’t need any research to tell him that “bad is stronger than good.” By refusing to tolerate selfish jerks, Paul Purcell gives us a great model of eliminating the negative. And the fact that he doesn’t seem to procrastinate when it comes to doing the unpleasant work of dealing with destructive people and poor performers is another benefit backed up by research. Consider a classic study [pdf] by Charles O’Reilly and Barton Weitz on how supervisors handled “problematic” sales employees (in which category they placed salespeople guilty of bad attitudes as well as other problems like low productivity and lack of punctuality). Bosses of the most productive groups confronted problems directly and quickly, issued more warnings and formal punishments, and promptly fired employees when warnings failed. The words and deeds of these no-nonsense bosses inspired performance because they made crystal clear that they would not tolerate crummy work. Related studies of punishment in the workplace show that employees respect bosses more when they punish destructive characters more swiftly and intensely – so long as they are fair and consistent.
The upshot is, if you are the boss, doing such “dirty work” is part of your job — and although you might not enjoy playing the heavy, doing it doesn’t make you the jerk. If you can’t or won’t do it, either you ought to be in another line of work or, at least, you ought to team up with someone who can.
With further apologies to Johnny Mercer, sure, as boss you should spread joy up to the maximum, but your main task is to bring gloom down to the minimum. Get that priority straight, and set the stage for your people to do their best work. Or pandemonium is liable to walk upon the scene.
Note: I originally posted this over at HBR.org as number 10 of my list of 12 Things Good Bosses Believe. Some of the comments over there are from people who don’t quite buy this perspective, and think that accentuating the positive is job one for a boss. And part of my agrees with these concerns, as in some ways, asking what is more important — accentuating the positive or eliminating the negative — is a silly question. It is akin to asking “what is more important, your heart or your brain?” But an evidence-based perspective suggests, at the least, that step 1 for leading a great team is getting rid of (or repairing) bad actions, procedures, and people and step 2 is amplifying and importing “good” stuff.
Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University. He studies and writes about management, innovation, and the nitty-gritty of organizational life.