The Gift of Negativity: What We Gain By Faultfinding, Nitpicking, and Naysaying

Painful experiences teach you to protect yourself. The tools of self-protection are faultfinding, nitpicking, naysaying, and quibbling.

Experience gives birth to protective negativity.

The birth of negativity:

“If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won’t sit on a hot stove again. That cat won’t sit on a cold stove either. That cat just don’t like stoves.” Mark Twain

A painful experience with a hot stove makes you critical, skeptical, cantankerous and disagreeable.

Negativity bias:

The gift of negativity is about NOT DOING. But ‘not doing’ doesn’t get much done.

There are a few people who think of how something might work, but in my experience, they are the dodo birds in the crowd. Faultfinding is an Olympic Sport on average teams.

Avoiding is stronger than pursuing.

People have a stronger negative reaction to losing $20 than the positive feelings they have from gaining $20. (Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow)

5 ‘advantages’ of faultfinding, nitpicking, and naysaying:

  1. Admiration: You seem wise when you explain why something won’t work.
  2. Time: You don’t waste energy on things that probably won’t work.
  3. Stability: You don’t need to change when you kill ideas before they grow legs.
  4. Power: You empower yourself by blocking other people’s ideas.
  5. Security: You protect the status quo, even if you complain about it.

Beyond negativity:

It’s natural to say, “That won’t work.” It’s leadership to ask, “What’s useful?”

  1. Define your goal.
  2. Engage in open conversation.
  3. Don’t silence reason givers – people who give reasons why something won’t work.
  4. Evaluate suggestions, reasons, and ideas by asking, “With our goal in mind, what’s useful about that?”

The “Usefulness” lens:

“How is this useful?” empowers people to explore, adapt, or eliminate suggestions or ideas.

“What’s useful?” treats all ideas equally.

Apart from “What’s useful?”, negative bias wins.

Bonus: The ‘useful’ lens enables learning. Nitpicking blocks learning.

What ‘advantages’ do you see in faultfinding, naysaying, and nitpicking?

How might leaders create future-building conversations?