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Posted: April 28, 2009

Use negativity to reap positive results

Groups work best when you "go with the flow"

Scott Halford

If you want positive results, you may very well need to go negative first. There is a natural tendency for human beings to dwell on and believe the negative, and that can work for you.

In a 2001 Yale University School of Management study, Sigal Barsade proved that we tend to believe negative emotions more readily than positive ones. Barsade also discovered that negative emotions are more “contagious” in a group setting than positive emotions.

These findings are especially apparent during the daily barrage of negative news of the economy.

We see negative emotional contagion show up at work around the coffee pot and in the lunchroom in the form of rumors and gossip. It also appears in meetings, and that’s where it can have the biggest impact on an organization. It serves as an analogy for what’s happening in your company at large.

It takes a good deal of skill for a meeting leader to turn a gripe session around and get participants to focus on what can be done instead of what cannot. From a human interaction standpoint, many leaders lack the understanding of what is actually happening and can't move the meeting toward a place where there is cooperation and good problem solving. Issues consequently go unresolved and nothing gets accomplished. What follows are even more frustration and negative feelings, which then become contagious outside of the meeting and permeate the entire organization.

Add to this another finding about human behavior: the Ziegarnic Effect. Prominent psychopathologist Dr. Bluma Zeigarnic discovered that we come into a full state of consciousness and alertness through negative events. Our brains are more “greased” when we are muddling in the negative, and our ability to be critical is sharpened.

Negative events turn on the adrenal glands to make us ready and alert for flight or fight. And that is often what ends up happening in a contentious meeting – participants either want to fight or get as far away from the negativity as they can. Suffice it to say, whether we admit it or not, our brains are oftentimes more switched on during battle than at other times.

Go with the flow of human behavior

These pieces of research make it necessary for us to change the way we go about running meetings - and corporations. We can either carry on business as usual or learn from these valuable findings and “go with the flow” of human nature.

The next time you run a meeting that has the potential for a lot of disagreement and naysaying, remember that negative emotions are very contagious: Through negative events, we become most alert. Try the following technique, which takes into account both of these findings, and I think you’ll find it very useful.

Your “negative people” are going to have a tendency to pick at almost anything. They see it as their job to protect the organization from the disaster that might unfold if they do not speak up. They can either become your worst enemy or your best ally.

When you open your meeting, announce the idea or issue you’re trying to solve and then explain to the group that you want to shoot as many holes in the idea as possible. That’s right. You’re going to rip it apart. Give them 15 to 25 minutes to discuss the downsides of why the idea would absolutely not work and the obstacles in the way of it being successful.

Keep the input on a flipchart. After this negative session, announce that now that you all know how not to make the idea work, challenge them to find ways to make the idea successful. Keep these “can-do” ideas on a flipchart.  Make sure the critical-minded people give input. People have a way of believing their own data. When they hear themselves talk about approaches to make the idea happen, you’ll have easier buy-in.

When you use this method, you acknowledge the Zeigarnic Effect. You cause alertness to rise and set in motion the wheels of an idea by allowing the group to do what it will naturally do, which is to look for the negative.

You’ve gotten those objections and obstacles out on the table so they aren’t festering and growing and becoming lethal in a participant’s mind. You’ve contained the negative so that it doesn’t become contagious. Finally, you’ve turned the meeting around to focus on the positive. Participants leave with a sense of accomplishment and feeling as if they’ve been heard.

Negative emotions and looking for the downside are a strong tendency, especially in groups. When you understand and apply the research around emotional contagion and the Zeigarnic Effect, you’re working with the flow. Lean into the negative, and you make it a positive.

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Scott Halford is the president of Complete Intelligence™, LLC. His new book, "Be a Shortcut: The Secret Fast Track to Business Success” is available now. Contact Scott at

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Readers Respond

Good article. It makes sense that people are emotionally more available to be positive when they've been allowed to unload their negative feelings first. Will apply this to my next meeting. I appreciate this simple and common sense approach. Thanks. By Ed Augustine on 2009 04 30

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