June 3, 2010

Subtly transforming the negative into positive

The previous post mentioned Bob Sutton's assertion that the best bosses belief that 'it is more important to eliminate the negative than to accentuate the positive'. At first, this assertion may surprising to people interested in 'positive  change approaches' like the solution-focused approach, positive psychology, appreciative inquiry, etc. Is there a contradiction between the tenets of these approaches and this assertion? Does this indicate that there is a divide in the way professionals think about how to manage and how to change with one side favoring a focus on the negative and the other side in favor of accentuating the positive? Let's explore this.

Sutton's point as I understand it
First let me try to explain how I understand Sutton's assertion. On his blog he cites an article by Baumeister et al. called 'Bad is stronger than good, which explains that people are a lot more sensitive to negative information and experiences than to positive ones (thanks, Amanda Horne, for mentioning this). Also, he refers to positive-negative ratio research which has identified a 'magic' 5:1 ratio which means that negative experiences outweigh positive ones 5 times. Each negative experience (for instance in marriages) would have to be matched by at least 5 positive ones to stay satisfied. Sutton's clever conclusion is that it is far more efficient to focus on eliminating the negative ones than to focus on the increasing the positive ones. Eliminating one negative experience sounds like less work than adding 5 positive ones, doesn't it?
My own reading of recent psychology research literature results in some support for the importance of focusing on the negative. For instance Research by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues has shown that top experts have become excellent by applying deliberate practice which, among other things, means that during practice there is a constant focus on eliminating mistakes and errors so that gradually the skill becomes better and better. Also, Carol Dweck's research shows evidence for the importance of focusing on errors and paying an effort to get rid of these mistakes.
Some real life examples may make it even more clear how powerful the negative be. A small leak in your boat may keep you from reaching the shore and will force you to attend to it (thanks, Robert Biswas Diener, for this metaphor). .A cancer cell might eventually cause the death of a whole organism (thanks, Paul Wong, for this example).

How does this relate to 'positive change approaches'?
To what extent is all of the above at odds with approaches like the solution-focused approach and positive psychology? Maybe less than it seems at first sight. A solution-focused perspective might help to get a more nuanced view on the subject. The seven steps approach may be a good (admittedly simplified) way to explain how, in solution-focused change both the negative and the positive play crucial roles. Step 1 is clarifying the desire for change. In this step, in most cases, a crucial role is played by the negative. In many cases people desire for change when they are not satisfied with their current situation. There is something hindering them and bothering them which is the reason they want things to be different. People's sensitivity for the negative, in other words, helps them to identify topics for change. Right then, however, the interplay between negative and positive starts. When the client has made clear what he wants to be different, step 2 starts, which is about defining the desired state in positive and very concrete terms. Then, step 3, would be to define what is already there, what has already been achieved. Again, this is the power of the positive. When you see that some things are already working, your hope and ideas for further progress grow. Then, step 4, is about earlier successes, situations in which the desired situation was already a bit present, in other words, when things were already a bit better. This, again, is an example of focusing on the positive.
In solution-focused change, the negative often plays a central role in 'topic choice': what is it we would like to be different. Right after the topic has been clarified, however, a focus on the positive kicks in and plays a powerful role.
I'll try to explain the crucial difference between a 'simple' strategy of eliminating the negative with the solution-focused approach as I have come to define it and use it.

Example: two different approaches to solving a team conflict
1. Trying to identify the cause
Many years ago, long before I knew about the solution-focused approach, I was asked to help a management team solve a conflict they had. Before meeting the whole team, I met with each of them separately. During these conversations I asked them what they thought was the reason for (and the cause) of the conflict. The conversations weren't too pleasant and the members did not seem to friendly and cooperative. Also they seemed eager to justify everything they themselves and done and to place the blame for the current situation on other people. One person did appear to be something of a rotten apple, although another team member also could be viewed as one. At the same time, though, the boss was blamed too because he did not prevent this conflict and had not managed the apparent rotten apples very effectively. It was very hard for me to see what 'the' cause actually was. It seemed like the whole team was the cause. Looking back on the sessions that followed with the team I can't say I think my facilitation was a great success. People remained rather defensive throughout.

2. A solution-focused approach

More recently, a similar type of question came my way and I approach it very differently. I started right away with a team session in which I first thanked them for asking me to facilitate the session for them. Then I said I had understood they wanted certain things to be different and expected the sessions to help with that. They agreed. Then I said: "It is my experience that teams, when they change things, they sometimes change too much by not only changing what is not working but also some things that were actually working okay. That is such pity. Would it therefore be okay to, before we focus on what has to change, look at things that don't have to change because they are already going well enough?" Although some of the people seemed slightly surprised they started mentioning things. I really probed so that I could understand well what was already working. After, we had discussed a list of perhaps 10 things I invited them to discuss with each what they would like to be different. Already, the atmosphere had improved and they started mentioning things. I, again, probed until they were able to describe in positive and concrete terms how things would have to become. During this part of the process, whenever a complaint or an attacked was expressed, I responded calmly and kept asking until they were able to express their point into more positive terms. At that point I would invite others to share their thoughts on that point, which generally lead to agreements. A next step in the process was to look for some small examples of situations in which the desired situation was already present. They found some which contributed to a further improvement of the atmosphere. I did 3 sessions with this team. When I met one of the managers, recently, he said: "The process was so inspiring. It is a world of difference now. What I now want is to have the rest of our organization to experience this, too."

So were we eliminating the negative here? Not quite, I think. It depends on what you mean by 'eliminating'. The negative played a crucial role because it triggered the whole process. But after that, we did not fight we negative, we did not search for causes or rotten apples. Instead, we subtly transformed the negative into positive. In the solution-focused approach it is as if the negative is not attacked head on but somehow evaporates while you're busy focusing on what you want to achieve. 


  1. I see it as you did eliminate the negative. You wrote that when the negative arose you FACILITATED the group to 'express their point in more positive terms' you were eliminating the negative. I also work and facilitate groups that have similar scenarios as to the one your described.
    Often when you meet 1:1 with people they already feel defensive and the culture (as you described) sounded rather aggresive and negative focused. It is so easy for any team to go negative like that. Because of the ratio you mentioned 5:1 the deficit just gets too large.

  2. Hi Michael, yes, perhaps you're right. I guess it depends on what you mean by 'eliminate'. It could also be interpreted as: in the team there a rotten apple which has to be removed (eliminated) which would be quite a different thing, not?

  3. your process sounds a lot like appreciative inquiry to me, same wine, different bottle?

  4. Dear Anonymous, there are indeed some important parallels. Here is an article on the background of the solution-focused approach: http://bit.ly/mUXxd

  5. I remember a talk by Martin Seligman that spoke (among others) about 2 ideas:

    1. Therapy as being as succeeding in bringing the the patient from minus to zero but failing to move it into positive, failing to get him to thrive.

    2. Presence of disease vs. Absence of health. Solutions to problems represented by "adding health" instead of "eliminating disease".

    They seam somewhat relevant.

    In regard to trying to identify the cause, I've stumbled upon something interesting in NVC: expressing observations instead of judgments and diagnoses. A lot of the trouble with identifying causes steams from the fact that people are often unable to separate what happens in reality from what happens in their own head.

  6. Hi Peter,
    Your point "minus to zero, versus building the positive" is very relevant to this discussion. Seligman made this point and several other have made this point earlier too (for instance Steve de Shazer).

    With respect to your NVC description. This is where NCV and SF (the way I have developed it) differ. As SF coaches we generally work with the perspective of the client and don't share our observations. I think that my colleague Gwenda and I may even go further in applying this principle of working with the perspective of the client than many others in the field of SF. it is, in our view, on of the very powerful aspects of the effectiveness of SF.

  7. Would you be willing to investigate NVC a little bit closer and post a comparison of the 2 approaches?

    I fear I might have misrepresented NVC here. :)

  8. Hi Peter, what I do on this blog is write about whatever fascinates me at the moment. Let me be honest about this: at this moment, I'm not really curious/fascinated enough to investigate NVC but this might change.

  9. Coert, thank you for your answer. Your honesty and directness is appreciated. :)

    I'll try to investigate the relation between SFC and NVC elsewhere. :) Fletcher Peacock (which you interviewed in 2004) seams like a good candidate. :)

  10. Hi Coert,
    A very nice sf twist to it. What bothered me about Sutton's point is that eliminating the bad in itself does not increase positive experience. Lowering the level of dissatisfaction does not neccessarily raise the level of satisfaction. Question: Is eliminating the bad and accentuating the good not two different games?

  11. Hi Stanus, i do think you're right. Maybe his book will say more about this?

  12. My two cents:

    I think that by acknowledging the "bad" and then finding what's wanted to instead (and creating it) is very useful regardless of whether we consider ourselves eliminating negatives or not. The result is the same: If you create a situation in which the negative is no longer present or influential you will raise the positivity ratio and get it closer to the ideal of 5:1.

  13. Hi Rodney, interesting point. It reminds me of something Chris Peterson once wrote: "We prefer some outcomes rather than others, pursue some goals rather than others, and desire some emotional states rather than others. Whether we label these preferred circumstances "positive" or "less sucky" then becomes a matter of semantics."

  14. Dennis Lynch said...The discussion reminds me of the baseball player who is in a slump, cannot get good contact on the ball. The coach finds him in the film room and asks him what he is viewing. The player says he is studying his three most recent attempts to hit the ball to see if he can discover the mistakes he is making. For his part, the coach suggests he get out the old films of how he was swinging when things were going well "at the plate". See if you can spot a couple of things you did then that you are not doing now and add them to your present swing. The coach is not focused on negative or positive as much as he is getting to a solution by restructuring the player's perspective.


Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner