Why Going Negative Rarely Goes Well

Recently, a CEO e-mailed for professional advice. Some of the executives at his company wanted to spread negative publicity about a competitor. Their rival’s below-board financial dealings had come to light and my contact’s colleagues saw blood in the water. They wanted to go in for the kill.

“Not so fast,” I said.

Missing an Opportunity

Speaking badly of another person or company may pique your interlocutor’s interest, titillate, and bond you through shared outrage, yet you’ve just spent time and energy talking about someone else—not about yourself, your focus, or your services and offerings. Opportunity lost.

Evoking Negative Feelings

Going negative evokes feelings of danger, anxiety, dishonesty, corruption, and the like in someone you seek to woo.

Social psychologists have found that people see you in the light you shine on someone else. If you speak negatively about someone or something, the person to whom you speak will attribute the negative traits to you. (Social psychologists call this phenomenon “spontaneous trait transference.”)

Further, these associations persist over time, meaning that even if you speak neutrally in your next conversation, the negative perception remains.

Begging Retaliation

Remember the line about people in glass houses not throwing stones?

Folks who have never done anything wrong—advertently or inadvertently—have to number nearly zero. Even if we have the best intentions, we make mistakes.

Empathy alone should keep us from going negative. Yet if not out of empathy, we should avoid negativity out of self-interest: Trashing others goads them to dredge our pasts for dirty laundry to air in turn.

Looking Like a Gossip

Gossip seems fun in the moment. Yet etiquette experts have always cautioned against it. Gossip shows bad manners. Gossip means rudeness. Gossip connotes a lack of class.

And people want to associate with good, positive, classy people.

In a previous post, I discussed my surprise at how quickly politicians forgot the lesson of the 2008 election: People crave positivity. They seek glorious pictures of possibility.

The lesson proves true in politics, true in business, true in friendship, and true across the board.

Stay positive, people.