When I got my first job as a supervisor I had big goals! We were going to be the most motivated, positive, customer oriented team we could be. We were going to be driven, hard workers with high morale. If I had a particularly long week at work, I would go home and watch a movie on Friday night. Which movie? “Rudy” of course. Who can’t stay motivated watching the true story of an un-academic, un-athletic young man with a dream of playing football for Notre Dame reach his dream?

But as time passed, that initial optimism wore off. Day-to-day work became a grind, and while morale may have been increasing slightly, there were not the noticeable shifts in employee satisfaction and output that I had anticipated. Watching “Rudy” no longer helped, and I found myself picturing the movie “300” at the end of the week instead.

Not happy with this lack of change, it was time to start researching why people are negative in the first place. Knowing the psychology behind the behavior would provide the insight needed to make some real changes. What I found out was both enlightening and disheartening.

According to the research paper “Bad Is Stronger than Good” by Roy F. Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs (2001), there are endless examples of how, by nature, humans are more motivated by and focused on the negative over the positive. Here are three things to keep in mind when attempting to cultivate positivity in your workgroup:

1. Negative experiences and even the fear of negative experiences have a greater impact on people than positive experiences.

It would be ideal if life were a teeter-totter, with events of equal “attitude” weight on both sides. That way we could simply offset any negativity with an equal amount of positivity, and everything would stay in balance. That was also my hope when I was pregnant with my first child – if I ate one apple I could eat one bowl of ice cream and it would even itself out - 45 pounds later reality set in. It just doesn’t work that way, and it’s the same with people’s emotions. Having a potluck is fun and brings teams together, but it will not make people feel good about work if they are getting bullied at other times (or are not included in the socializing at the potluck), and receiving a stellar evaluation is not going to stop someone from complaining about policy changes they don’t like.

Similarly, just as it’s been shown the good feelings you have anticipating a vacation make you happier than the “rejuvenated” feeling you have post-vacation, anticipating something negative can be worse than actually experiencing the negative event itself.

2. Negative people have a greater effect on us than positive people.

Just like negative events, negative and positive people don’t sit evenly on the teeter-totter either. This is why “one bad apple can ruin the whole bunch” – regardless of how many positive people you have on your team, one or two bullies can bring the entire team down. Standards must be set and negativity must be dealt with in order to maintain an acceptable work environment.

This can be challenging because people bond more closely over things they don’t like than things they do like, which means talking about negative things can make some people feel more accepted by others. In studies negative people have also been viewed/rated as smarter than people with more positive attitudes, which may make others want to emulate those with negative attitudes.

3. Your environment doesn’t change

The third reason you may be having difficulty improving morale is because you are not changing the environment. If you are tasked with improving the morale of your team, but nothing else in the environment changes, your efforts won’t have long lasting effects. Even if people want to change, often our environment dictates our behavior, which means if you don’t change the environment, the behavior will not change either.

I like to use the analogy of trying to keep ice cubes from melting in boiling water to explain environment and morale. Ice cubes, when put in the environment of boiling water, melt. Trying to improve morale without attempting to change the overall environment is like trying to keep your ice cubes from melting in the boiling water. It doesn’t matter what kind of ice cubes you use, if you put them in boiling water they are going to melt. It is the same with people. You can keep putting new employees in the negative environment and the environment is going to keep winning. You have to change the environment in order to improve morale, just as you have to turn down the temperature of the water in order to keep the ice cubes from melting.

Often the thought is that improving morale can be done simply by adding positive activities such as a potluck or “employee of the month,” etc. Recognition and team building are critical for retaining good people. However, in order to make a real difference in how people feel in their work environment, you have to deal with negativity directly. This is challenging, but imperative for obtaining and maintaining a strong, positive work environment.

LeAnn Krieg is the Managing Director for the Madison, WI chapter of Polka Dot Powerhouse. She works for the University of Wisconsin – Madison Police Department as their 911 Center Manager.

After deciding to major in Organizational Communication in college, she realized she would have to somehow overcome her fear of public speaking. She created a plan to achieve her goal of becoming a proficient public speaker, and was eventually selected, through a speaking competition, to deliver “The Response from the Class” at her college graduation. Since then she has continued to create plans to successfully achieve both personal and professional goals, adjusting to change and re-evaluating along the way.   

She has spoken at state, regional, and national conferences on topics such as Continuity of Operations, Negativity in the Workplace, Delivering Successful Presentations, and Leadership. She coordinates the speakers for the Wisconsin state 911 conference and is always on the lookout for people who are willing to share their expertise with the behind the scene heroes who answer your emergency calls.

Her personal mission is to help people know that what they are doing in life matters. When you look back at the book your life has written, regardless of the specific words, what you are doing makes a difference every day. LeAnn can be contacted at pdpmadison@yahoo.com.