Perceptions and Positivity: Balancing the Good with the Bad

One of the last chapters of Scaling Up Excellence is titled “Bad is Stronger than Good”. The focus of this chapter deals with people’s perceptions and how their experiences shape them. Bad events have a stronger, more lasting effect. Bad events are also more contagious. Psychologists studying this phenomenon have defined what they refer to as a “five-to-one” rule:

“Positive and good interactions must outnumber the negative and bad interactions by at least five-to-one, in order for the overall perspective to be positive.”

Within your organization, what constitutes a bad or negative interaction? Or, more simply, what ticks you off or disappoints you? A missed deadline? People talking over one another in a meeting? A rude email? Poor quality work? The point here is that it takes five deadlines made, five orderly meetings, etc. to leave you with the impression that the negative interactions were not reflective of the organization.

Everyone in an organization can double a positive effect by acknowledging it, thanking people for their timeliness to a meeting, and acknowledging a job well done. And, here’s the kicker – by doing so, we raise the bar of expectations by appreciating good interactions.

Our insurance carrier, Liberty Mutual, performs regular site inspections of our construction sites. Their site inspection reports include photographs and comments, both good and bad, of their findings. But it is the acknowledgement of the good experiences that are the most encouraging. Because the reports include mostly positive examples of excellent safety practices (we have an exemplary safety record), and the reports are shared at the highest levels in the Company, the visits are not unwelcome. The rare negative examples are accepted as fair and constructive, and the expectation is that safety is the highest priority on a job site.

Positive feedback is vital and its impact should never be underestimated. At the same time, we need to make sure we are not mistaking negativity for skepticism. Interestingly, the previous chapter to “Bad is Stronger than Good” discusses the importance of checks and balances to confirmation bias, in which the group only listens to the information that confirms what they think. Skeptics play an important role in an organization. They may always be the ones pointing out why something won’t work. Their perspective, while being perceived as negative, may trigger the strategy that accelerates the team toward the goal.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman postulated the “Peak-end Rule”: His research indicates that decisions are based on experiences and one’s perspective of an experience is disproportionately impacted by the best and worst moments, and whether the experience ended well, or badly. If bad is five times stronger than good, it is imperative we keep “bad” out, especially as it nears the end.

In the context of our daily work, the interactions we should be most concerned about involve our interactions with customers – both internal and external. Throughout the day, think about the interactions we have. Each one is an opportunity to move the ball forward by spreading some good; whether it’s encouragement, good will, respecting others, having empathy for their challenges, meeting or exceeding expectations, or holding peers accountable by setting the example of holding yourself accountable.

It is the contribution each individual can make and it really takes no extra effort.

At the same time, we need to be open to skepticism. While it can be viewed as negative thought, the disciplined mind, the self-confident organization will encourage it. Recognize it’s potential. Then embrace it with a smile and appreciation.


“The mind that is too ready at contempt and reprobation is, I may say, as a clenched fist that can give blows, but is shut up from receiving and holding ought that is precious.”

George Eliot, Felix Holt

“Skepticism has never founded empires, established principals, or changed the world's heart. The great doers in history have always been people of faith.”

Edwin Hubbel Chapin

“The same principles which at first view lead to skepticism, pursued to a certain point, bring men back to common sense.”

George Berkeley