Building on the Positive When Faced with the Negative

Special 12th Anniversary Guest Column

Building on the Positive When Faced With the Negative


We are all familiar with the principle that leaders should emphasize the positive, build on strengths, and focus on abundance rather than deficits.  We know that providing positive feedback is likely to produce higher productivity and higher engagement that criticism and negative evaluations.  Ten years of research in the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship has produced study after study confirming the importance of adopting a positive perspective and implementing positive practices in organizations, teams, and interpersonal relationships.  Individuals, teams, and organizations do far better in a positive environment than in a negative, critical, or punishing environment.

What happens, however, when we confront a real problem, a major mistake, or a situation where negative feedback seems essential?  How can we possibly rely on positive feedback, capitalize on strengths, and  focus on abundance when someone really goofs up?

Let’s say, for example, that your son or daughter comes home from school with a report card that looks something like this:

ENGLISH:            A 



MATH:                 D-   


How would you react?  What would you say?  It’s natural to immediately focus on the low grade in math:  “What in the world happened in math?  How did you mess up in that class?”  An alternative, however, is not to abandon positive communication and a focus on strengths but to maintain consistency in utilizing them.

My friend, Jim Mallozzi, the former CEO of one of the Prudential Financial Services companies, found himself in a situation with his daughter just like the one described above.   Jim is completely dedicated to positive practices in his company, and he wanted to apply it at home as well.  His daughter, Mary, came home with good grades across the board except in math class where her grade was abysmal.  Here is the way he approached the situation.

Jim:  “I need to talk to you about your report card.”

Mary:  “Yeah, I know, dad.”

Jim:  “I want to talk to you about your grade in English.”

Mary:  “But I got an ‘A’ in English.”

Jim:  “I know you did. But I want to talk about English.  Did you like your teacher?”

Mary:  “I liked her a lot.”

Jim:  “Did you get your homework in on time, and did you participate in class?”

Mary:  “Every day.”

Jim:  “Did you go in after class to ask questions or check on assignments?”

Mary:  “Yeah.  I went in several times.”

Jim:  “Did you have a study group to prepare for exams and assignments?”

Mary:  “Several of us got together to study and help each other out.”

Jim:  “Well, Mary.  You are an ‘A’ student.  You know how to get ‘As’.  Now let’s talk about math.  Did you like your teacher?”

Mary:  “I thought he was a jerk.”

Jim:  “Did you get your homework in on time, and did you participate in class?”

Mary:  “Heck no.  I didn’t understand the material.”

Jim:   “Did you go in after class to ask questions or check on assignments?”

Mary:  “No.  I probably should have, but I didn’t want to appear stupid.”

Jim:  “Did you have a study group to prepare for exams and assignments?”

Mary:  “No, I didn’t.”

Jim:  “Well, Mary, why don’t you just apply in math class what you know how to do to get As in English?  I will check with you every Friday, and I’ll ask you about these things.  You don’t have to like your teacher, but you have to respect him.  I want to encourage you to participate, do your homework, to go in after class, and to put together a study group.  Will you do it?”

Mary:  “OK, dad.”

Guess what Mary’s grade was at the end of the next semester in math?  A.

The point being illustrated is that regardless of the problem or situation, capitalizing on the positive, finding a way to build on strengths, and reinforcing an abundance mentality almost always produces better results than focusing on mistakes, harping on weaknesses, and reinforcing a deficit mentality.  Great everyday leaders help others flourish and improve by building on the positive.

 Comment on this article below.

Kim S. Cameron is the Associate Dean of Executive Education in the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.  His past research on organizational downsizing, organizational effectiveness, corporate quality culture and the development of leadership excellence has been published in more than 120 academic articles and 14 scholarly books. His current research focuses on virtuousness in and of organizations–such as forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, and compassion–and their relationship to performance.  He is one of the co-founders of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan.

  • Great story! I have a son starting high school this year and the timing on your story couldn’t be better.

    Thanks a bunch for sharing.

  • …or….How about, “Great mistake in math, Mary! Guess you have learned a lot from that experience…” stated in a kind and helpful parent.

    When parents celebrate their children’s learning experiences with welcoming responses, their kids will grow knowing that every failure that comes their way is a step to future successes.

  • I like this approach but can think of some additional steps. Certainly, the father was wise to start the discussion by complimenting his daughter for the A in English.
    First, I would comment on the other three grades– all As. Otherwise, the daughter may feel that her hard work on those other three classes has gone unnoticed.
    At a training session for soccer coaches, I was taught the “sandwich” technique for talking to my players. Sandwich any criticism around two compliments. Focusing on only the negative will cause the player to tune you out. Praise first, then point out the error, then praise again.

    Using that technique here, the father would do well to start and end with a compliment about the other grades. He started on the right foot, but could have finished there too by patting her on the back for the other three good grades.

    Second, why not see if the daughter can come up with the solution herself? “Honey, what do you think you can do to bring up your math grade? There must be a reason why it is so much lower than the others. What do you think it is?”
    Usually, people will work harder to implement their own solution to a problem, to show how right they were for coming up with the idea. They “own” the solution rather than having it imposed on them.

    Finally, how about rewards for the good grades? Parents (and employers) can create monetary rewards or other incentives for good behavior. My daughter is trying to encourage her six-year old daughter to read 1000 pages this summer. Her daughter gets a reward if she reaches the goal, and she got to pick her reward — a sleepover with her best friend.

  • Excellent reminder for parents, take a breath and focus on what is working well.

    As parents in our house, we also add in some critical thinking about the experience of having a teacher who is a “jerk”. We say, regardless, you need to apply your best skills to that class, but we talk a little about motive and recognize the negative feelings for this teacher. Not every teacher is good, some are plain bad. We try to teach our son, that no bad teacher can bring you down if you dont let them, we say to work with your feelings about this teacher, get past it and realize that you are the only one you are hurting by failing this class…

    Just wanted to make sure that we talk a little about the relationship issue in this example…we dont want our son just doing things from a checklist or out of fear, or stuff that has no meaning, but to be motivated for the right reasons to get good grades…

    Thanks again for getting us thinking

  • What a great article. The example to illustrate the point was perfect. A very simplistic approach to a very difficult situation. Mary was very receptive, but in a work situation when you have been faced with criticism, its hard to trust someoen who is trying to change to be more positive. Such change, even when positive, may likely be received with skepticism or defensiveness. However, several attempts may be necessary for the employer to realize that youhave really changed from the negative attacks to a different approach.

    • Carol,
      You have made a great point. The old truism that “you only get one chance to make a first impression” is extremely powerful at work. If you have been critical, for example, once, but especially for a while, then people will expect this. It takes great effort to change one’s own behavior and then near-constant repetition to change others’ perceptions.
      I think this is a case where if one has been perceived a certain way — by your children, but especially by co-workers or staff – it is very helpful to say, “I know I (have) had a problem with X, e.g., being too critical. I’m working on it. It won’t be easy.” And even, “I need your help: if you see me slipping into old patterns, please tell me.” Even then, people are likely to be skeptical.
      I am glad you added this point!

  • I thought this was na excellent article and it gave me a different perspective on how to get real solutions without immediatedly putting a person on a defesive mode.

  • I really enjoyed this article especially the example of relating it to my children. I often time am too critical and the way to communicate that was used will be very helpful with my children and others.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • What a wonderful way of using positive thinking to encourage personal thinking and personal growth in a child. Thank you for such an insightful piece.

  • Good article, but while some of us may be interested in developing our parenting skills, I think we are all interested in the workplace. A boss who criticizes constructively also is more likely to create a more productive work-atmosphere than one who always jumps down people’s throats. But getting a boss to realize this is near impossible – one basically just has to hope to be lucky enough to get a boss who takes this philosophy on his or her own. But I haven’t had such a boss in years, and I’m becoming a nervous wreck. I try to take responsibilty for my own morale and productivity, but it’s becoming harder and harder to the point where I feel the need to ask someone or other for help, even at the risk that my boss might find out I’m feeling stressed by her. I just can’t talk to her – she talks over me, fast and loud, and when I try to explain that it’s counterproductive that she does that, she plays the “this is my cultural heritage/ethnicity” card. I think angry, difficult behavior transcends ethnicity, but she’s got a bunker mentality when it comes to her “right” to be an easily-angered person, and suggestions of “couldn’t you just count to ten” only make her angrier. I transferred to this workplace-unit from a unit with a boss with a similar personality, and hoped things would be better. Now that they’re not, I’m assuming it’s my fault, but I don’t know how I can make sure that I always anticipate what little thing is going to get on my boss’s wrong side. I do try very hard to do my job conscientiously, be respectful to all, especially my boss and customers, etc., but I’m not perfect, and sometimes I make a faux pas, which I’d like to learn from, but it’s hard to think calmly when she always blows up at me. I wish your article, although well-stated and well-reasoned, had given an example of positive, constructive criticism in the workplace – I really could use some help in trying to establish a good working relationship with my boss – I know my own tendency to be an anxious person doesn’t help, but I’m trying, as I have all my life, to overcome that. but with jobs scarce and with cutbacks and layoffs constantly threatening my job I really feel like my back’s up against a wall. (I’m a public service employee, and believe me it isn’t all that cushy as the stereotype of public service leads some to believe)

  • THIS IS THE BEST EMAIL I HAVE EVER RECEIVED. It starts with our children and with today’s busy parents they slip through the cracks for one reason or another. It only takes a few minutes of positive interaction to turn a child around completely (and heaven knows our young society is screaming for it).

    Also, to add to the pot are those parents who have a jerk for a boss and don’t know how to handle that type of personality so they are miserable all day and come home to carry on that misery by yelling at the kids. If we use the positive factor with our children it just might rub off on us. Thank you. I seldom if ever feel passionate enough about an email that I provide my feedback.

  • Great post. It is a great illustration because it models the appropriate behavior. When something negative happens, it is easy to become emotional, and let our pain and fears drive our behavior. This example is a scene that plays in my mind like a movie, which means that I can draw on this experience when something similar happens down the road with my kids.

    Parenting is another form of management, only harder because we love our kids and really care about the outcome. I remember a painful episode when I was a kid when my dad went off on me because of my trumpet practice but it touched a nerve in his life because he was a frustrated musician. I wish he had seen this one ahead of time.

  • I have too many comments – all positive! I’ll just include a few.
    *The article definitely applies at work with the notes that Dan and Carol added.

    *This past Sunday, the NY Times had an interview with a leader who learned an early lesson about her negative attitude. Here’s a link to that interview – you might have to cut and paste the link:

    *I work in Human Resources and recently had a visit from an employee who expected to be devastated during her annual performance review — and was indeed demoralized. She agrees that there are things she needs to improve but she said the whole conversation was demeaning, harsh and almost like a test. I wasn’t there so I don’t know, but it’s hard to imagine it had to go this way.

    *Last, though not least, I am so glad to see so many men commenting here about parenting. I am sure my comment reveals a stereotype of mine – and I apologize if anyone is offended.

  • A few months ago I was given a new challenge by my chief judge: reassignment from the criminal to the family division of our court. I am an old dog learning new tricks. But one thing is the same regardless of the offender’s age. Any sanction for failure to meet my expectations (for example, a probation order) should also include a recognition of positive progress the offender has made. (There is almost always SOMETHING good that one can say.) Focusing only on the negative can cause an offender to lose heart, to despair and to conclude that the system is unalterably stacked against him or her. I shared this guest column with the other family division judges and referees as a good reminder to remember the positive when we’re sanctioning the negative.

  • Kim,

    The approach you outlined in the article was very much appreciated, especially when taken literally with the report card example. With one high school senior and a college junior, I find your advice priceless and it will change the way I approach their progress toward goals. I am also a special education teacher and value the impact your examples will have in my classroom. Thank you!

    Sue Hill

  • This is a great article! But just a question or two. Are there some people who do just fine with criticism? Atre there tools for exploring all our individual positive attributes so that we can proactively seek them out and build on them?

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