Why it’s better to eliminate the bad than do good

For workplace culture and productivity improvements, accentuating the positive isn’t as powerful as eliminating the negative. Find out why bad experiences have a stronger effect than good ones.

From a very young age, people develop a clear sense of what is good and what is bad, as well as the difference between positive and negative experiences. We may not all have the same definitions for everything, but we know when something is good and when it isn’t.

In the workplace, positive experiences can lift productivity and employee retention. Good is certainly a foundation of most successful organisations. But all this is quickly undone by negative or bad experiences. In fact, it’s said that bad experiences have a much stronger effect than good ones. They’re not considered equal. Some researchers have suggested it takes five good experiences to balance out the effect of a single bad one. If that’s the case, there’s a strong argument for prioritising the elimination of negative experiences from the workplace.

This article is designed to help you get started on understanding the importance of identifying and removing negative experiences from your organisation or business. It draws on an article published by several psychologists (Bad Is Stronger Than Good, F. Baumeister et al. 2001) and the writings of Bob Sutton. Bob’s an organisational psychologist, a professor and the celebrated author of Good Boss Bad Boss, The No Asshole Rule, and The Asshole Survival Guide, among other popular titles.

Why bad feels much stronger than good

Baumeister and his colleagues suggest this is a result of evolution. When organisms are more strongly influenced by bad things, they’re more likely to recognise and avoid life-threatening events. This trait would therefore be increasingly passed on to subsequent generations. In other words, it’s in our genes. While good is uplifting, survival requires us to be more responsive to bad things.

Bad experiences affect more people than good ones

Undesirable events are believed to have a more wide-ranging effect on our mood.  It seems that desirable events influence people in good moods, but have little effect on a bad mood. However, undesirable events tend to effect people in both good moods and bad.

For example, imagine you arrive at a restaurant and are greeted with a good service experience. If you’re feeling good, chances are it would lift your mood further. However, if you arrived in a bad mood it would probably have little effect.  On the other hand, if you receive a bad experience on arrival it’s likely to drag your bad mood lower.

The effect of a bad experience lasts longer

Apparently, bad events have a longer lasting effect on how we feel than good events do. One study found that when people have a good day, it has no noticeable effect on their wellbeing the next day. However, a bad day continues its influence into the following day.

It takes five good interactions to make up for a bad one

One researcher evaluating relationships suggested good interactions must out number bad by five to one. Any less and the relationship is unlikely to last. It further supports the idea that eliminating a bad experience is significantly more powerful than creating a comparable good one, at least when it comes to interpersonal relationships. To build productive and rewarding relationships in the workplace, teams should focus first on getting rid of things like destructive actions, negative communications and sources of conflict.

People naturally focus more on the bad things

As the saying goes, bad news travels fast. People pay more attention to bad things and think more deeply about negative experiences than good ones. When it comes to how we view a new acquaintance, bad information has a much stronger influence than the equivalent good information. And finally, our happiness is more profoundly affected by bad health than good health. Also, pessimism has a stronger effect on health than optimism does.

A bad experience can still be outweighed by sufficient good ones

It’s important to remember that our response to bad events is for our own good. It’s a survival instinct. In addition, the influence of a bad experience can be balanced out by good ones – it just takes a lot of them.

What all this means for the workplace

While successful employers, managers and teams focus on providing good things like rewards, recognition, perks, flexible hours and two-way feedback, you ignore the bad influences at your peril.

Turning bad apples into good

One bad apple in a team, who might even be the manager, can bring it all down. No matter how productive or essential the person is, if they regularly provide colleagues with negative experiences, the collective effect on team productivity and staff turnover will be far worse.

It’s important that managers keep their eyes and ears open for evidence of negative behaviour that’s affecting others. Keeping it out of the workplace requires a relentless effort. It involves careful employee selection, clear expectations, meaningful feedback, zero tolerance of bad behaviour, professional development and, if necessary, terminating someone’s employment.

It may seem easier to turn a blind eye and excuse poor behaviour with comments like ‘that’s just who they are’, ‘it’s part of having a diverse team’ or ‘I know, but we can’t afford to lose them’. However, you’ll only keep losing others, no matter how much good you try to do. The power of the bad experiences will keep outweighing all the good ones you’ve invested in, and people will simply do the minimum required while they quietly find somewhere else to work.

Encouraging self-regulation

Self-regulation is the goal, but some employees may need guidance to improve their awareness of the effects they have on others. Sometimes simply pointing it out and asking if they had realised is enough. Others may need professional development in self-awareness, empathy or how to change their behaviour – or all three.

Fixing mole hills before they become mountains

A bad experience can also be something quite straightforward that never seems to get addressed, despite people raising it. Examples might include:

  • Faulty equipment, like a printer that frequently jambs
  • Slow or poorly designed software
  • Seemingly meaningless tasks, like detailed weekly reports that don’t appear to be read by anyone
  • Compulsory attendance at meetings that have no relevance to you
  • A clear manager’s favourite who’s allowed to dominate team meetings

The negative impact of experiences like these can be far stronger than managers realise, unless employees are given opportunities to raise them and indicate their importance. If employee feedback is not encouraged, people may think they’ll be seen as moaning about trivial things instead of ‘getting on with their work’.

Check out an easy way to appreciate your employees.