To get to great, first drive out the bad…

bad behaviourThe notion of moving from ‘good to great’ is often used as a key driver in encouraging improved performance within organisations. But a fascinating article by Huggy Rao and Robert I. Sutton in McKinsey Quarterly suggests that if you want to create and spread excellence, you should start by eliminating those negative, destructive behaviours that often hold back great performance.

Case studies and academic research show destructive behaviour – selfishness, nastiness, fear, laziness, dishonesty – has a five times greater impact on employees’ moods than positive interactions; introducing confusion, destructive conflict, distrust, and dead ends. Interestingly, this “bad is stronger than good” effect can also be seen in a wide range of other settings from romantic relationships to group effectiveness, so it’s not just major organisations that could benefit from this approach.

Eliminating destructive behaviour and beliefs clears the way for excellence to spread – to spread and sustain something good, you’ve first got to take out the bad

Seven ways of breaking the bad…

1. Nip it in the bud

The best bosses nip bad behaviour in the bud but always aim to treat people with dignity.

Building on the ideas behind the “broken windows” theory, the aim is to address low-level, small acts of bad behaviour before they become seen as acceptable – allowing even a bit of bad behaviour to persist suggests that no one is watching, no one cares, and no one will stop others from doing far worse things.

This “compassionate hard-ass” style of leadership doesn’t withhold bad news or hesitate to tell employees when and why their work isn’t up to scratch – but it works hard to give the feedback in context and with consistency.

2. Plumbing before poetry

Getting people to focus on the small, mundane, and gritty details is an effective way of eliminating negativity. And this needs to be done before you can move onto the grander, big vision, picture of the future.

“You’ve got to fix the plumbing before you spout the poetry.”

3. Adequacy before excellence

In the same vein, too many companies develop a strategy based on ‘exceeding customer expectations’ when the vast majority of customers are really just looking for a good level of service. It’s ‘bad service’, when customer’s basic expectations are not being met, that gives organisations real problems.

Research suggests that whilst 25% of customers are likely to say something positive about a good customer-service experience, 65% are likely to say something negative about a bad experience. Similarly, whilst 23 percent of customers who received good service told ten or more people, 48 percent who experienced bad service did the same thing.

Making things easy for your customers and delivering on their basic expectations is crucial to keeping them coming back.

4. Use the ‘cool kids’ to define and eliminate bad behaviour

Identify those people within your organisation who have the most influence on the way others behave and respond to new ideas. Get them on-board with the idea of eliminating the “bad”, work with them to define what “bad” looks like, and encourage them to stop behaving that way themselves.

Want to stop people constantly looking at their smartphones in meetings? Find a couple of influential team members and ask them to keep their phones off and in their pockets during meetings and to help you encourage other team members to do the same. Keep at it and soon everyone will be switching their phones off and putting them away.

5. Kill the thrill

According to Mark Twain, “There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.”

Often bad behaviour is simply driven by a feeling of getting one over the establishment. Identifying and removing this sense of victory can be enough to stop the behaviour.

A large sawmill was losing a million dollars’ worth of equipment a year to workers who stole simply because it was seen as a source of prestige among peers. Having identified this, the sawmill managers moved to eliminate the thrill by letting employees check out equipment for personal use anytime they wished. Bragging about stealing something that’s there for the taking doesn’t earn you prestige and the theft rate immediately dropped to virtually zero.

6. Try time shifting: move from short-term focus to long-term consequences

Research from New York University suggests that people are more prone to behave badly when they are preoccupied with the here and now. But, when they focus on the link between who they are now and who they want to be in the future, they behave more ethically and begin to develop more constructive long-term behaviour.

Encouraging employees to look to the future and making the impact of negative actions more vivid to them, helps link short-term actions with long-term consequences.

7. Focus on the best times, the worst times, and the end

The “peak–end rule”, developed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, suggests that – no matter how good or bad an experience is or how long it lasts, judgments about it are shaped most strongly by the best and worst moments and by how it ended.

When eliminating the bad, looking at the worst and final moments in a process or activity should give a good steer on where to focus changes.


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