Anger Management

Negative emotion can be underrated as a motivational tool

Basketball coach in disbeliefIt’s a common sports movie trope: A team down at the half comes roaring back to victory after the coach’s inspirational locker room speech. But do pep talks work?

In research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Berkeley Haas Prof. Emeritus Barry Staw and colleagues analyzed hundreds of halftime speeches and final scores from high school and college basketball games and found that teams do better when coaches shelve the happy talk and bring down the hammer.

In fact, the more negativity, the more the team outscored the opposition, even if already ahead at halftime. “Rather than saying, ‘You’re doing great, keep it up,’ it’s better to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re up by 10 points, you can play better than this,’” Staw says. However, really extreme levels of negative expression—think former Indiana University coach Bobby Knight throwing chairs—reversed the effect.

In a business context, Staw cautions against applying the findings too liberally—prolonged negative feedback can demoralize employees.

“Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk,” Staw says, “but when you have an important project that needs to get done [quickly], negative emotions can be a very useful arrow to have in your quiver to drive greater performance.”