Leaders, Time To Get A “Swear Jar” For Your Negative Comments

Nothing hurts as much as getting a negative comment from the people around you. 

Our brain works in mysterious ways — no matter how many people say positive things about us, it’s the negative comments that really stick with us. Research by Dr. John Cacioppo discovered that our brain has a ‘negativity bias’. As a result, we are  more sensitive to and more likely to respond to negative comments than positive ones. This is the reason why criticisms and insults hurt more deeply and tend to stay much longer than positive ones. 

Another study discovered that people need to experience positive feelings 3 times more often than negative feelings in order to be productive and creative. Having negative feelings and receiving negative comments, on the other hand, can make people less productive, as it will trigger a person’s avoidance motivation. 

Meaning, it will drive people to be more vigilant in avoiding more negative things in their environment, ensuring that they are immediately aware of problems. This is a survival  mechanism that has helped us evolve and survive as a species. 

However, in today’s modern world, minor stressors like negative comments from a coworker can cause our brains to react in the same way. This is the reason we obsess about negative comments other people make about us — causing us to feel demotivated. 

Now, put yourself in the shoes of your employees. Think about how they will feel when you criticize them or make negative comments about them.

Changing your negative habit, $10 at a time

Marshall Goldsmith thought of a highly effective way of preventing leaders from making negative comments — by making them spend money. 

Most of the people Marshall has coached over the years have been white, affluent, old men. A lot of people believe that this demographic wouldn’t  bat an eye if they lost tiny amounts of money. They were wrong. Rich old men hate losing money; they hate the concept of losing in general. This is why this strategy works well. 

Leaders often talk about building a positive environment that encourages open communication. Yet, without realizing, they sometimes make negative comments about their peers or colleagues. This is a bad habit that must be broken.  

After getting feedback from his staff, Marshall realized that he himself has been guilty of this behaviour. To break this habit, every time he made a negative comment about a person or group, his staff was asked to point it out to him and Marshall would have to pay them $10.

The team was extremely excited with this opportunity. They even tricked Marshall into making bad comments about a coworker or a client so they could win an easy ten bucks. By noon, Marshall had lost 50 bucks; he locked himself in his office and began to reflect.

The first day cost him $50, the second day cost him $30, the third day cost him $10. Sometimes, he forgot and had to shell out another $10. But he realized that his behaviour was changing. It was becoming less and less frequent. 

As simple as this technique sounds, it works. 

A woman from Marshall’s class at Dartmouth said, “You know what, my teenagers are so negative, I’m going to implement this with my kids when I go home. $1 for every time they make a bad comment, and $10 for Mommy and Daddy.”

Approximately 6 months later, Marshall received an email from the lady saying, “I’m amazed at how much more positive my children have become and I’m ashamed of how much money I have lost. It became painfully obvious to me where my children were picking this up. I was very good at spotting my kids’ behaviour. Not nearly so good at spotting my own behavior.”

So leaders, if you want to change your behavior, get your employees involved. Make them your accountability partners. The $10 will act as both an incentive for your team to help you and a penalty for you to change your behavior.



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