Inducing negative feelings in others is easy, but converting them into productivity is hard

How many positive emotions can you name? Try it out. Happyness … Now try and name negative emotions: fear, envy, regret … Most people know many more words for negative than for positive emotions. Why so many words for negative feelings, when they do not actually feel so different (which is why we lump them together as “negative”)?

The answer is: All these negative emotions differ by the action they prepare you for: you call it fear if you want to escape, you call it envy if you want it for yourself, you call it regret if you want to undo it. Positive emotions prepare you for sitting in your armchair and enjoy. Not many words needed for that.

When people feel positive, their behavior is very simple: It ranges between being interested and being indifferent. This is easy to understand and to work with, if you are a manager or a colleague. With negative feelings, however, people’s behavior varies widely and often unpredictably: Some freeze or withdraw, others become critical or distrustful, counter-attack, go into denial, disengage, undermine … and only some respond productively to the situation.

Managing people with negative emotions means having to attend to each and everyone individually in order to turn their “colourful” behavior into productive collaboration. This consumes your time, so realistically you can only manage a few people with negative emotions: your effective leadership span shrinks. So, while negative feelings are sometimes desirable because they activate certain cognitive abilities (subject of another post), my general advice to you is: Think carefully before using negative feelings as a management tool.