The power of the negative

Jan. 4, 2013 | by Thom Rainer

I often turn to Brad Waggoner for leadership advice and wisdom. The executive vice president of LifeWay Christian Resources, he previously served as the dean of a graduate school of leadership. He provides me a gentle reminder from time to time on—to use his words—"the power of the negative."

Indeed I often have to remind myself of this leadership principle.

Understanding the principle

This principle is simple but profound: Negative reinforcement has at least 20 times the power of positive reinforcement.? At first glance, a leader may conclude that speaking and leading negatively is the best path since it is so powerful. To the contrary, unless used wisely, negative words and leadership can demoralize, de-motivate, and destroy. All because of its very power.

While there is a place for negative leadership, it must be used cautiously, with the greatest of care and discernment.

Examples for all of us

We all experience the power of the negative, either as givers or recipients. See if you can identify with any of these examples:

You speak or preach somewhere and afterwards hear 20 compliments and one criticism. Upon which one do you dwell?

A husband in anger tells his wife that he is tired of her. Although he has showered her with a dozen compliments that week, which one does she remember?

A child receives accolades for her good grades that semester. But her father, upon discovering the child has her first failing grade, tells her that "at the pace you’re going you won’t amount to anything in life." Which of the father’s words will stick with the child for years—if not a lifetime?

One co-worker points out problems with another co-worker’s area. Though the co-worker has offered plenty of praises in the past, which has the greatest power?

A CEO who has provided mostly steady leadership for several suffers an anger-infused "meltdown" in front of managers and supervisors. Which facet of his leadership will be remembered the most?

A time to tear down and build up

The writer of Ecclesiastes (third verse of chapter three) tells us clearly that there are times to be negative and times to be positive. Indeed there are times for a prophetic voice, a corrective voice, and an admonishing voice. The problem is that the author does not provide specific instruction on timing or frequency.

Whether we lead a sizable organization, a church or just our home, many of us are tempted to exercise the power of the negative too frequently. When we are negative about some other person or event, we are able to look away from our own weaknesses and failures. It is much easier to point a finger of accusation at someone other than ourselves.

Furthermore, the power of the negative is quite tempting because we often get attention when we do so. One example is my blog. The article that generated the most attention in recent times was a negative one I wrote about Jerry Sandusky and the Penn State child sex abuse scandal. While I am still convinced that the article was appropriate and timely, I must keep in mind the power of the negative.

Using discernment

The Apostle Paul said these words to a church 2,000 years ago, and they still apply to us today: "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up as you are already doing" (1 Thess. 5:11, HCSB). There are indeed times when a prophetic or negative word is in order. There are moments in any leader’s life, whether a president, pastor or parent, that he or she must exercise the power of the negative.

Still, it should only be exercised with wisdom and discernment.

It would seem that the preponderance of our leadership should be in building up and encouraging. Such leadership can change a company for the good, a church for the good or a family for the good,

And, it might just change the world for good.


Thomas Rainer is the president and CEO LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a church and denominational consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of nearly two dozen books.



Topics: Commentary , Discipleship , Fellowship , Leadership , Ministry , Teaching Resources , Vision

Thom Rainer / Thom Rainer is the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. He is also a former pastor, seminary dean, and leader of a consulting firm. Rainer is the author or co-author of 24 books, including his most recent release, “I Will: Nine Traits of the Outwardly Focused Christian.” His 2013 book, “I Am a Church Member,” recently passed the one million mark in sales.

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