It didn't take a scientist to figure out that grumpy people make others feel lousy and feeling lousy makes them less productive at work...

Share story

AKRON, Ohio — It didn’t take a scientist to figure out that grumpy people make others feel lousy and feeling lousy makes them less productive at work.

But, in fact, researchers have quantified the effect of chronic negativity. And you’d never have guessed how expensive those scowls can be.

Negativity costs the U.S. economy $300 billion a year — and researchers consider that a conservative estimate.

Unfortunately, smiles and sunny outlooks can’t be mandated in the company manual.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

But managers can neutralize and even reverse damaging negativity through the measured use of employee recognition and praise.

And there’s a scientific formula for that, too, said Tom Rath, global practice leader for strengths-based development for the Gallup Organization and co-author of “How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life.” Rath wrote the book with his grandfather, Donald Clifton.

Strategies for a positive workplace

Prevent “bucket dipping”:

Start by setting an example yourself. Make an effort to have positive exchanges with others. When you encounter people who are chronically negative and will not change, avoid interactions with them whenever possible.

Shine a light on what’s right: Instead of pointing out weakness and areas where there is room for improvement, focus on the positive. Individuals are more likely to excel if they are encouraged in areas where they have talent rather than pushed to improve in areas where they struggle.

Make best friends:

Everyone wants to be with people they like. Cultivating close relationships at work results in higher productivity, greater employee retention and better safety records.

Give unexpectedly: The most valued gifts aren’t always anticipated. In addition to milestone awards — sales goals, years of service — reward small accomplishments in a meaningful way. Sometimes the gift of responsibility is the most meaningful.

Reverse the golden rule:

“Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

In other words, don’t give one-size-fits all recognition. Customize the reward to the recipient. The knowledge that you took the time to consider the individual will mean just as much as the recognition itself. So put away the gold watches, and be creative.

Source: “How Full is Your Bucket? Positive Strategies for Work and Life” by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton

Knight Ridder Newspapers

Clifton died in 2003 and never saw the book published. He was a psychologist who pioneered the study of positive psychology and developed the dipper-and-bucket analogy that gives the book its title.

The metaphor goes like this: Everyone has an invisible bucket that is either filled or emptied with each interaction with another person (positive exchanges add to the bucket, negative exchanges take from it).

When our buckets are full, we feel cheerful and spread our positive energy to others. When our buckets are empty, we are gloomy and send our negative vibe out to the world. In the business world, that translates to hampered productivity.

The book and its philosophy of cheeriness have topped national best-seller lists and gained the attention of executives from major corporations, including Hudson, Ohio-based Jo-Ann Stores.

Rosalind Thompson, executive vice president of human resources for Jo-Ann Stores, made the book required reading for the company’s regional vice presidents.

“We’re definitely attuned to the notion that focusing on someone’s strengths and giving recognition for performance is critical to our success,” Thompson said.

Underlying the full-bucket philosophy is the principle of encouraging and developing employees’ strengths, where they have the most potential for greatness, rather than pushing for improvement in areas of weakness.

“Sometimes, it’s not so great to be well-rounded,” Rath said. “Those sharp edges can be a good thing.”

Rath pointed to a new Gallup study, which found that when managers focused on employees’ strengths, 61 percent of the employees were engaged in the work and only 1 percent were actively disengaged — complaining about their jobs, sniping at their co-workers and bad-mouthing the company.

When managers focused on employees’ weaknesses, only 45 percent of the employees were engaged and 22 percent were actively disengaged.

Rath is the first to admit that the science of happiness might elicit some eye rolling from certain human resources hard-liners.

“That would have been my initial reaction to this,” Rath said. “I’m not the most bubbly, outgoing guy. That’s the reason we tried to weigh this down with data. No matter how jaded someone may be, if you show how this affects the bottom line, that draws in a different group.”

It isn’t easy to apply science to something as intangible as negativity. But the theory behind Rath’s book is backed by 50 years of Gallup research and scientific studies.

This research suggests a happy, productive work force is dependent on a “magic ratio” of positive to negative interactions.

Forget the principles you learned in junior high science class. In this case, one positive does not cancel out a negative. The magic ratio Rath talks about calls for three positive interactions for every negative one.

That explains why an unpleasant exchange with a surly co-worker can ruin a perfectly good mood. But, as Rath’s charts show, that surly co-worker is more than just a drain on a work force’s collective psyche, he’s a drain on productivity.

A recent Gallup survey showed that employees who received regular praise and recognition were more productive, more likely to stay with their employer, received higher satisfaction scores from customers and had better on-the-job safety records.

So just shower your workers with unending positive reinforcement, right?


Praise can be overdone, Rath said. Just as researchers have identified the ideal balance of positive and negative interactions for productivity, they have quantified how many back slaps are too many.

“Too much positive is not grounded in reality, it’s not sincere or deserved,” Rath said. “It’s seen as just being Pollyanna.”

According to Rath’s book, praise is excessive when positive-to-negative encounters reach a ratio of 13 to one. Beyond that, praise can come across as insincere. And, Rath said, an insincere positive interaction can have a more detrimental effect than a negative one.

Quantity isn’t the only issue. Praise should be deserved, specific and individualized, Rath said.

And, as in Jo-Ann Stores A Cut Above program, it should be spontaneous.

Through the program, any employee can report the great behavior of their co-workers, supervisors and subordinates. Once approved, the nominee gets a pin in the shape of a tiny pair of scissors.

The pins are presented in a small ceremony, in which the rewarded employee is told exactly what he or she did right.

Thompson said the pins are coveted throughout the company, and employees display their personal collections on their suit lapels and fabric-store aprons.

“As we’re continuously improving our (corporate) culture, we’re looking at the whole model and how to work with strengths rather than (weaknesses),” Thompson said. “It’s just a more positive way to think. And when you think positively, you feel better.”