Bad is stronger than good. It is more important to
eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive.
In my first few weeks as a company commander, I noticed that directly across the hall worked a consistently loud mid-level leader. He made a point to interrupt and talk over everyone around him who was either junior in rank or wasn’t annoyed enough to walk away.
As his leader, though, what concerned me was that his talk was also constantly negative. He seemed to be incapable of agreeing with or encouraging a positive thought by those around him. It was an emotional drain to listen to and I’m sure it was exasperating for the Soldiers working for him.
#10 on Robert Sutton’s “12 Things Good Bosses Believe” zeros-in on negative interactions and caustic team members because they can quickly overwrite the positive that exists within an organization. Being a nice leader and encouraging others is not enough, Sutton explains in his Harvard Business Review blog post on the topic:
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.
Some might say that the climate of authority and bravado in military units makes positivity “uncool.” Success in the military, like anything else, “rises and falls on leadership” (John Maxwell). Sutton’s point is that actively developing a positive climate is less important than removing the negative people and interactions. Sutton draws an analogy to marriage:
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.
In the instance of my former subordinate, it was clear to me that his corrosive attitude was exactly opposite of the command climate my First Sergeant and I were trying to build. One day after a particularly cynical monologue, I engaged him with an ultimatum…cut out the negativity or I’d pull him out of the position, period. He adjusted his attitude.
Here are a few tips for action:
- Lead with positivity and publicly reward such behavior in your team.
- Words matter. Pay close attention to how you discuss problems and difficult people. Your attitude will propagate through the organization.
- Frame conflict in the context of growth, always placing the outcome and the learning process higher than the friction that caused it.
- Establish no tolerance for caustic, negative people (Robert Sutton’s book on this topic is called The No Asshole Rule)
- Go on the hunt for negative people. Roam around the building, get conversational with people, and investigate rumors of negative behavior.
- Use Baird CEO Paul Purcell’s approach to clarify your stance on negativity: “If I discover that you’re an asshole, I’m going to fire you.”
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