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A Message to Managers: Be Positive-- Or Else!

Posted by: Emily Thornton on September 14, 2009

When business is going badly, it’s difficult to find positive things to talk about with your employees. But research conducted by Thomas O. Davenport, a principal at the human resource consulting firm Towers Perrin, illustrates why doing so is crucial to encourage a team to overcome negative currents.

Threats and losses have a negative impact on the human psyche that is asymmetrical to gains and victories, according to psychologists. One social scientist has even suggested that for a marriage to succeed, favorable interactions must outnumber unfavorable ones by at least five to one.

Recently, Davenport conducted a survey of employee attitudes to see how this asymmetrical impact was playing out in workplaces. He discovered that in the throes of the recession from August to December of 2008, employees became much more concerned about job security, while their interest in maximizing earnings and doing exciting work dropped.

Not coincidentally, employee participants mentioned negative incidents involving managers 26% more often than positive ones. Worse, 82% of the negative emotional responses were experienced with high intensity, whereas 88% of the positive emotional reactions carried low or moderate intensity.

“Managers have a special power to evoke workplace anxiety, and an equal capacity for helping employees deal with it,” Davenport writes. Employees work harder for managers who consistently provide small uplifts— like a word of praise, or an expression of confidence— for them throughout the day.

But the reverse is also true. Managers who create downdrafts in employees’ emotional states encourage more so-called “withdrawal behaviors” like absenteeism and turnover. “When managers fail to acknowledge and appreciate employees, employees report frustration, fatigue, apprehension, distress and anger,” Davenport writes.

Reader Comments

Derek Irvine, Globoforce

September 15, 2009 11:39 AM

A couple other recent studies (cited in Human Resources Executive and Bnet) found that rude behavior (even observed if not directly experience) negatively affects creativity and problem solving skills while employees of narcissistic bosses produce less, are more stressed and are less satisfied with their jobs.

None of this is really surprising, though. You get what you give. Give rude, self-serving direction and you will get poor performance. Give praise and acknowledgment of effort and you will get loyalty and increased productivity.

Additional research and suggestions for cleaning up toxic workers available here:

Emily Thornton

September 15, 2009 9:26 PM

Derek-- The research you cite is interesting. I especially like the phrase which refers to employees with bad attitudes as "toxic."

The site seems to suggest good managers should lead with "gratitude." What would be some interesting examples of that you've seen lately?

Tina Huggins

September 20, 2009 1:40 PM

THis is my article

Craig Perrin, AchieveGlobal

September 23, 2009 2:19 PM

Great insights into the impact of a manger’s behavior on employee morale. The study you mention echoes parts of AchieveGlobal’s study of last March on leading in tough times. For example, 52 percent of managers surveyed felt that communication from leadership focuses on the opportunities rather than the challenges of the recession. Over 70 percent of managers said they use ongoing positive communication to improve morale in uncertain times.

Despite these fairly rosy numbers, I agree with Derek that many managers remain blind to the motivational power of positive communication. We’re now finalizing additional research on leadership in the 21st century to dig a little deeper into the topic. (

Francie Dalton

September 28, 2009 7:53 PM

Emily, nothing is more disarming than a senior executive who acknowledges the resident brain trust. Demonstrate the belief that your own success is dependent upon collaboration with others committed to the success of the organization.

Francie Dalton

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