13 September 2019

Do Negative Pep Talks Work?

Welcome back. Growing up, unlike my father or brother, I wasn’t burdened with an abundance of athletic prowess. Any burden I carried pretty much faded after high school.

I’ve blogged about playing baseball, basketball and tennis. Though I have no trouble remembering the coaches, I can’t recall anything they ever said. And that includes locker room pep talks, the focus of a recent study by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Toronto.


While that study’s setting is the locker room, the subject is the psychology of leadership. Being positive is usually emphasized for improving your team's or staff's performance. The researchers looked at the effect of getting negative.
Scene from the 1986 movie Hoosiers, where the coach (Gene Hackman) delivers a positive inspirational speech to the team before the regional basketball finals (from thefilmspectrum.com/?p=21716).
Basketball Halftime Speeches
With the permission of 23 high school and college coaches, the researchers recorded 304 half-time speeches during basketball games.

Each talk was rated on the extent to which the coach expressed emotions ranging from positive (pleased, excited, relaxed, inspired) to negative (disgusted, angry, frustrated, afraid). These assessments were then related to how well the team played in the second half.

The researchers also conducted a separate experiment in which participants listened to selected half-time speeches and reported how motivated each speech made them feel.

Should Leaders Be Positive or Negative?
Analysis of the half-time speeches and both the second-half scoring and the participants’ reported motivation showed the same results. Negative half-time speeches work…up to a point.

Expressing negative emotion at halftime pushed the players to perform better in the second half (even if they were ahead at halftime) and had a strong motivating effect.

But extremely negative expressions of emotion--becoming too angry or too negative--impeded performance and lowered motivation.

Wrap Up
The researchers offer that negative emotion can be underrated as a motivational tool. When leaders are trying to correct or redirect behavior, negative emotion can effectively convey their message.

Yet it only works at a moderate level of unpleasantness and can be counterproductive at low and high levels. Further, it only works in short-term instances. Prolonged negative feedback can demoralize.

Knowing how far to go must be tricky. I can’t help wondering how much the response to a leader’s negative emotions, especially anger, would vary with the individual, with gender, age, attitude. Some of us were never particularly gung-ho and resent being harangued. 

This leader might have exceeded an effective level of negative emotion (from www.digi-karma.com/2017/04/25/7-ways-managers-unknowingly-demotivate-employees/).
Anyway, I’ve put up with worse and you probably have, too. Thanks for stopping by.

P.S.
Study of locker room leadership in Jour. of Applied Psychology: psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fapl0000418
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-08/uoc--wcl081519.php
Movies with the best motivational locker room speeches: www.fandango.com/movie-news/the-best-motivational-locker-room-speeches-747822

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