Positively Negative

Image source: Scott*

As most of us know, a reputation for the best hotel service in the world can be nearly undone by the demeanor of one sullen porter.

And so it goes with all sorts of workplaces, say Huggy Rao and Robert I. Sutton, both of Stanford, in a new book excerpted in McKinsey Quarterly. “Destructive behavior—selfishness, nastiness, fear, laziness, dishonesty—packs a far bigger wallop than constructive behavior,” they write. “This ‘bad is stronger than good’ effect holds in nearly every other setting studied, from romantic relationships to group effectiveness.”

Some important ways to solve this problem include providing employees with a strong sense of responsibility, giving them no cause to feel that they’ve been treated unjustly, and making sure that they’re being held accountable.

In any case, though, as good as your best employees may be, “eliminating the negative is the first order of business.”

On the face of it, this may not seem like a line of argument to which Peter Drucker would be drawn, since Drucker repeatedly stressed the importance of focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses. In The Frontiers of Management, he approvingly cited the example of General George Marshall choosing an Army officer for training recruits despite the fact that the officer was “vain, arrogant, egotistical and fought constantly with his commanding officer.” Drucker wrote: “Never mind, could he train recruits?”

But, as we’ve noted, Drucker didn’t consider weaknesses to be irrelevant, especially if they included rudeness, and much of what he advised was how not to do things wrong, including how not to destroy morale.

To that end, “don’t tolerate discourtesy,” Drucker instructed. And if an employee proves unable to work without spreading discord, “they must be asked to leave.”

Drucker would have seconded some of Rao and Sutton’s other suggestions, as well. Employees, if they are to have proper motivation and morale, need “a clear assignment for which they themselves take responsibility,” Drucker counseled. And they must feel things are fair.

In Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices, Drucker warned, “The ‘sense of injustice,’ as Edmond Cahn, the American legal philosopher, convincingly argued, is deeply ingrained in people.”

What priority do you assign to weeding out negative behavior in the workplace?