Just Say No to Negativity

I frequently encounter leaders who simply tell their team members what to do and then expect them to do it and be happy. These aren’t always older folks, either, and their comments are generally more negative than positive.

Positivity Ratio

Research has shown that the ratio of your positive versus negative comments has a profound effect on your team’s performance. It’s called the positivity ratio. Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy reviewed data from comments made during meetings among 60 strategic business unit management teams in a major corporation. The comments were coded as either negative or positive. The high performing teams had a positivity ratio over ten times higher than the low performing teams.

Positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson continued the work with Dr. Losada and reviewed additional data from other sources. Their conclusion was that a ratio of positive to negative comments of 2.9 was a tipping point, above which teams would flourish. Below this they may languish. Granted this isn’t the only factor in a successful team, but I believe that it is a powerful indicator of team climate and leadership style.

If you think about positive comments for a moment, I believe that you will discover how open and expansive a climate they create. When you tell someone you like what they’ve done, they will think they should do more of it. A positive comment is forward-moving energy.

Likewise, a negative comment stops the flow of energy and can stifle creativity, innovation, and forward movement. Negative comments also create a poor work environment, leading to high turnover and low team performance.

As you would expect, there can be too much of a good thing. Fredrickson and Losada found that when the positivity ratio began to exceed about 11 the benefits began to disintegrate. This is to be expected, of course, since appropriate negativity is sometimes required to guide your team.

Sometimes leaders have a team member who can’t seem to do anything right. Take it as a challenge to catch them doing something right and provide positive praise at that moment.

An excellent exercise is to observe yourself during your work day and make a list of tick marks for positive and negative comments you make. This will also help you become more mindful.

When you are in meetings observe people’s reactions when positive and negative comments are made. Observe how the dynamics of the group change with positive and negative comments. All of these tools will help you become more mindful, and as a result a better leader.


  • Observe your comments each day. Keep a small notebook or piece of paper with you and make a small tick mark when you find yourself making a positive or negative comment
  • Observe your team member’s reactions to positive and negative comments
  • Observe your team dynamics when positive and negative comments are made

Keywords: leadership, positive psychology, mindfulness, Losada line, positivity ratio


  • Cameron, K., Mora, C., Leutscher, T., & Calarco, M. (2011). Effects of positive practices on organizational effectiveness. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(3), 266-308.
  • Fredrickson, B. L., & Losada, M. F. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60(7), 678–686.
  • Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams. Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30(9), 179-192.
  • Losada, M., & Heaphy, E. (2004). The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance of business teams. American Behavioral Scientist, 47(6), 740-765.
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Leadership in the Aftermath of Greg Smith

On March 14, 2012 Greg Smith, a Vice President in the London office of Goldman Sachs, resigned from the firm. The same morning an op-ed piece from him with a public explanation for his resignation was posted on NYTimes.com. Mr. Smith stated that he could no longer work at Goldman given the shift, in his opinion, from a strong customer orientation to concern solely for Goldman’s profit.

Reflecting on how you might respond to a similar situation is a good leadership exercise. I believe there are two facets, or angles, from which to view this situation—internal and external to your organization.

As a leader, I feel it would be crucial to reach out to customers as quickly as possible with a message describing your values related to customer satisfaction and providing specific examples where customer benefits were put before your own corporate profitability. As I have written previously, trust is an essential element of leadership. This message can be delivered without a reference to the op-ed piece, thus keeping Mr. Smith’s negative view below the radar if it had not surfaced at any given customer.

The second facet is more difficult. An important question is the accuracy of Mr. Smith’s views. If his views are a faithful representation of your culture then it is time for some organizational reflection and soul-searching. It may be important to ask yourself what cultural values you wish to promulgate and then make a concerted effort to assess leader behavior.

Your behavior speaks louder than your words. Maintaining awareness of your own behavior is frequently difficult although training in mindfulness can pay great dividends. Using a third party to gather qualitative and quantitative views of your behavior is a good complementary method of assessment.

While it may be easy to dismiss Mr. Smith as simply a disgruntled employee, an authentic leader will have the desire to dig deep within himself and into the organization for any lessons that may be gleaned from this unfortunate situation.


  • Embrace and quickly respond to any customer concerns related to publicly aired negative views of your organization
  • Take any negative opinions of your leadership to heart
  • Use self-reflection and mindfulness to become more aware of your own behaviors
  • Use a third party to gather qualitative and quantitative views of your behavior

Keywords: leadership, trust, culture, mindfulness


  • Hogan, R. J. (2007). Personality and the fate of organizations. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Hogan, R. J. (2008, April). Leadership is a Hygiene Factor. In R. B. Kaiser (Chair), Unconventional thinking about leadership. Symposium conducted at the meeting of Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference 2008, San Francisco, CA.
  • Schein, E. H. (1990). Organizational culture. American Psychologist, 45(2), 109–119.
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