Focusing on the negative is a modern management disease

Are you tired of people focussing on what’s wrong, what’s not working and what you didn’t get quite right? This focus on the negative seems to be the modern disease. You get 9,999 things right but all your boss wants to talk about is the one thing that didn’t turn out too well.  As many as two thirds of employees report that they receive no direct appreciation for all the positive things they contribute. The top reason people leave their jobs is that they don’t feel appreciated according to one study in the US.[1]


It might seem obvious that we have to pay attention to what isn’t working and figure out how to fix it. There may be some truth in that but there are many reasons why you should follow what we call the 7:1 rule: focus seven times as much time and energy on appreciating the positive aspects of performance relative to the time and energy you put into pointing out problems and focussing on the negative.


First of all, people aren’t motivated by a workplace culture that only wants to talk about what has gone wrong or what people aren’t so good at. Focusing on the positive aspects of performance motivates people. A strengths based or appreciative approach to performance is intrinsically more motivating than focusing people on what they did wrong. What’s more, this type of positive approach is intrinsically more effective at producing better performance. This is because the mind doesn’t process negatives. The instruction “Don’t think of a pink elephant” just results in you thinking of a pink elephant. Telling people what they shouldn’t do is more likely to leave people feeling powerless and confused. Catching people doing things right by telling them “That was great, more of that please” leaves people feeling more empowered and motivated to improve.


This isn’t just about performance reviews either.

Think about the meetings that happen in your organisation. Do they focus on what went right or what went wrong? Do people talk about what they are excited about or what they are worried about? We have attended meetings of very successful organisations where you might have the impression that very little goes well. This creates a toxic and disempowering atmosphere with low levels of engagement.


We met one senior executive responsible for waste collection in a major UK city who told us

“Each month I get asked to report on collection failures. These typically run at around 20 to 30 missed collections per month. Yet nobody ever asks about the half a million successful collections in the same month. We are measured by failure rather than by success.”


Two of the most important things that people want from their work[2] are to feel valued and to feel that they can add value. Focussing attention on the areas where people may feel they failed to add value or where they themselves don’t feel valuable is very counter-productive. This approach reduces levels of engagement and disempowers people. By contrast focussing on what has gone well and what is working empowers and energises people and contributes to increased levels of employee engagement.

The StrongSuits cards make giving appreciation practical and stress-free. Here are 3 tips to give effective recognition for your employees based on their valuable contribution and strengths:

  1. Set a weekly reminder in your calendar to remember to send out appreciation to your team members and colleagues on their contribution that week.
  2. Use the StrongSuits card deck when providing appreciative feedback. Either by handing out a card to your colleague directly with a note “at your best” or via written appraisal. By using consistent language of strengths, you can create an awareness of a multitude of strengths in your workplace.
  3. Always remember to describe the observed behaviour the employee did and to make the impact it had on the outcome measurable.


[1] Tom Rath and Donald Clifton, How Full Is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life, 2001

[2] Top Engagement drivers by industry, EON consulting 2015

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