Bad vs. Good: Why Does the Bad Seem to Outweigh the Good?

“When it comes to Bad vs. Good, why do bad things get all the attention?”

There’s a struggle between good and bad and it’s happening on our teams.

The bad news?  The “bad” is far more powerful than the “good.”  The good news?  As leaders, we can use the power of bad for good.

Here’s why we seem to be focused on the bad around us, and how that knowledge can help us become more effective as leaders.

Bad vs Good: Why Does the Bad Seem to Outweight the Good?

Remember When?

What would be a bigger deal to you:  losing $50 that you had, or gaining $50 unexpectedly?

If you are like most people, you would be more upset by the negative event than by the positive one.  You want your 50 bucks back.

How about other experiences?  Growing up, we camped often as a family, and I have hazy positive memories of the times when things went well – vistas, hiking trails, fun with family, s’mores over the campfire.

But what I remember vividly are the times things went wrong – like that hike where we ended up huddling under a clear plastic tarp on the side of a mountain during an unexpected afternoon lightning storm.

If you think about it, I bet you find it easy to come up with similar examples.  The good is fuzzy; the bad is etched in our minds.  Why is that?  And what are the implications about bad vs. good for leaders?

What the Research Says

In a revealing paper by Roy Baumeister and Ellen Bratslavsky, there are several reasons why we are much more attuned and responsive to bad experiences than good ones.

It’s a survival instinct.  The caveman who can remember to avoid the part of the forest where he saw his friend chased by a tiger was more likely to live to see another day.  The downside risk of facing a tiger is greater than the upside reward of finding a nice berry bush.  Our focus on the negative helped us stay alive.

It reveals more.  The good is common and expected, and as we go through our days that’s mostly what we see.  Good is almost routine.  Bad things are a disruption to that pattern and may require us to change our behavior, like a vehicle accident clogging traffic on our commute to work.

We learn faster.  The paper cited several studies that looked at learning speeds.  In one, a group of children were given an empty pail; they received a marble to put in the pail as a reward for successful performance.  A second group was given a pail that already had marbles in it; a marble was taken away from them for each failed performance.

The children who lost marbles due to failure learned new behaviors more quickly than those who received them as a reward.  They tried harder to avoid the negative.  (There are lots of reasons we don’t pursue negative reinforcement more as a method of instruction, but that’s what the studies suggest.)

It helps us decide faster.  In one interesting study, participants were given a list of people to cast into different roles for a play.  Researchers revealed information about each candidate bit by bit until the subject made a decision about what role to place them in.

When the information began with a string of positive attributes it took longer to decide than when early information included some negatives.  Cast the guy with the limp in the role of villain.

It gets our attention.  In a 1980 study, participants were evaluated by someone else, then asked to watch a video of that evaluation.  If the evaluation video was negative, participants monitored it far longer than if it was positive.  We are very attentive to things that are critical towards us.

Among journalists and news programs, it’s common knowledge that bad events are considered more newsworthy (“If it bleeds, it leads”).  Likewise, an authoritative history of novels makes the point that no one has ever written a successful novel about a happy marriage, while novels about troubled marriages abound.  We are interested in how bad things affect others, perhaps because there could be future implications for us.

We’re curious.  How do you respond when someone tells you they have good news and bad news, and wants to know which you want to hear first?  The majority of us (77-88%) ask to hear the bad news first, maybe because knowing the bad sooner gives us more time to react.

Emotion is a highlighter.  One function of emotion is to enhance memory to improve recall of important things.  Like using a bright yellow pen to mark a key sentence in a book, strong emotions attached to certain memories helps us remember them in greater detail.

After a hike in the woods, which are you more likely to remember, the pretty butterfly that landed on your hand, or the snake you nearly stepped on?  The emotional intensity of unpleasant experiences helps sear them into our memories.

So What’s the Problem?

Ok, so in the battle of bad vs. good, we’re wired to focus on the bad, and there are several good reasons for that.  Does this power of the bad mean that as leaders we should put our emphasis there, too?

Sadly, there are many leaders who take this approach, but I think it’s a mistake to adopt a negative focus as a leadership approach.  Here’s why.

The negative snowballs.  Not only do we tend to fixate on the bad, negative events combine over time to have an even greater effect.  One three-week study measured the impact of bad events on a person’s mood and sense of self and found that bad events negatively impacted other things.

Those who had a bad day were more likely to have a bad day tomorrow, too.  Having a good day did not have any noticeable impact on the following day.

Another study found that when we’ve had a negative experience, and then suffer a second one soon after, that second one seems worse to us than if it had happened in isolation.  The negatives compound.

The negative overpowers.  One bad thing is not neutralized by one good thing.  They don’t average out to zero, and the negative carries more weight.  In a study that looked at hiring, if a candidate was initially considered favorably, a very small amount of information was all it took to change the decision to rejection.  Yet it took more than twice that amount of information to overturn an initial rejection into a decision to hire.

Likewise, in another study participants were shown video of people introducing themselves, then asked to rate those people on several dimensions.  Researchers found that the more negative emotion words a person used to describe themselves, the less likeable and competent they were judged to be, while positive emotion words had no siginifcant impact on the ratings.

Bad vs. Good: Why does the Bad Seem to Outweight the Good? A Do Not Enter Sign Doesn't Tell Us Where to GoThe negative is uninspiring.  Bad events and criticism can definitely change behaviors, help us learn what not to do, and keep us out of trouble in the future.  But like encountering a “Do Not Enter” sign in the middle of the wilderness, all we know is what to avoid.  There’s nothing to tell us which way to go.

Lacking direction and fearful of consequences, people tend to feel boxed in.   They hunker down, carve out a safe zone, and stay there.  They do the minimum required to avoid punishment, but little else.  In that environment, we’ll never be able to fully tap into people’s potential, get their inspired best efforts, spark their creativity, or earn their loyalty and dedication.

Teamwork suffers.  Worse, in a place where negative is the norm, people can conclude that they are better off if that negativity is directed at someone else, even if it’s their own teammate.  (“Better him than me…”).

As an “every man for himself” mentality sets in, trust evaporates, and so does teamwork.  You may be seated near each other working on the same thing, but you’re not a team.  You’re just trying to survive the day, even if it’s at someone else’s expense.

By adopting a negative approach as leaders, soon we’d be awash in a sea of negativity as bad events seem to compound and overwhelm us, and we struggle through each day avoiding the bad instead of seeking the good.

Who wants that?

Bad vs. Good – The Takeaway

What do we do about it?  In the battle of bad vs. good, each has its place; it’s a matter of balance.

Use the negative selectively.  Sometimes a critical comment is exactly what is needed.  Good times to be frank or critical might include when safety is an issue, or you hear people start talking about crossing legal or ethical boundaries.

Be firm and they will remember, not just then, but in the future as well.  If you’re heading for a cliff, don’t mince words.

Provide direction with the positive.  One way to guide and encourage is to reinforce the behaviors we are looking for.  People generally like to do things that make them feel good or have a positive impact on them.  When we catch someone doing something right, a few specific words of praise can help them understand they are on the right track and inspire them to keep going.

Overwhelm with the positive.  We can overcome the bad by force of numbers.  Psychologist Dr. John Gottman, in his study of relationships, found that when there were at least five positive comments for every critical one between partners, a marriage was far more likely to survive.  Those ending in divorce averaged only three positives for every four negatives.

A related study discussed in Harvard Business Review examined the effectiveness of 60 strategic business units and found that the highest performing teams had a 5.6 to 1 ratio of positive comments to negative ones.  There is some discussion about the quality of the data in the study, but the overarching point remains valid:  a positive environment can counteract the negative.  Focus on looking for the things people are doing right, and point them out.

Build it into the Culture.  Finally, it’s worth noting that even with our built-in focus on the negative, people are still generally pretty good, and most do not set out to make bad things happen to others.  The thing that regulates that behavior is culture.

Whether it’s the churches we go to, the laws we live by, or “that’s just how we were raised,” culture is a powerful force that helps us co-exist and counteracts the impact of the negative.

As leaders we can have a tremendous impact on the culture of our teams.  When we build that culture intentionally we can establish an environment that focuses on trust, teamwork, and genuine positive encouragement.  This in turn unlocks the potential for engagement, growth, productivity, and satisfaction.

When it comes to bad vs. good, our built-in focus on the bad serves a useful purpose.  But as leaders, if we focus more on the positive, we can achieve a balance that enables us all to accomplish more together.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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