Which is a Better Motivator: Negative or Positive Emotion?

Feedback is designed to motivate change. Employee surveys, self-assessments, 360-degree feedback, and performance reviews are worthless if they don’t inspire change and development. The hard part is making the leap from feedback to change.  The leap is often a big one, over a seemingly deep and dangerous canyon.
How do you motivate an employee receiving 360-degree feedback to make the leap? What will inspire management to jump after seeing the results of an organization-wide employee engagement survey?
In the Heath brothers’ book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, they assert that inspiring change requires channeling appropriate feeling and emotion.
Feedback (employee surveys, 360-degree feedback, etc.) can be seen as a slap in the face that creates negative responses that, in turn, motivate change. The Switch authors note: “We often hear that people change only when a crisis compels them to, which implies that we need to create a sense of fear or anxiety or doom.” Is it true?
The Heath brothers refer to a “burning platform“, a phrase that describes a horrific gas leak explosion in 1988 on an oil rig. Survivors of the accident had a choice: jump into the sea or burn to death on the platform of the oil rig. In that situation, fear elicited response. Survivors jumped and lived. Yes, negative emotion motivates change.

Which is a Better Motivator: Negative or Positive Emotion?

Are negative responses the best way to motivate a response after feedback? No doubt, it’s one method. In fact, most people initially respond with negative emotion after receiving lower-than-expected 360-degree feedback or employee survey scores. But the Heath brothers argue that it’s not the most effective.
Positive emotion is stronger and facilitates creative responses to feedback. Positive, hopeful emotion motivates broader change and unique (personally-adapted) solutions that are more effective. “We need to encourage open minds, creativity, and hope,” assert the Heath brothers. How should this be done in conjunction with the fear and anger that seem to naturally arise after receiving low scores on feedback assessments?

  1. Put out the fire on the burning rig by helping people “engage fresh thinking and enthusiasm.”
  2. Focus on positive results and elicit good feelings.
  3. Ask ‘what if’ questions.
  4. Set short term goals.
  5. Promote hope for improvement and success.
  6. Facilitate positive reactions by communicating the power of change and the success that’s in reach, just on the other side of the canyon.

Feedback can be used as a negative slap in the face to motivate change, but positive responses to feedback are more powerful and longer lasting. Feedback used correctly creates positive emotion. Initial negative feelings can be turned into hopeful emotion and generate creative solutions through effective coaching.
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