Personal Growth

This Is the Surprising Trick to a Winning Pep Talk

When hard times hit and we have to gather up our strength, it's important to have a fearless leader at our sides. Some of those leaders lean toward the positive, like Coach Dale in the movie "Hoosiers": "If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don't care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game — in my book, we're gonna be winners!" And others (like Bobby Knight, the former Indiana University basketball coach) throw chairs. But which of those tactics works best?

Inspired or Disgusted?

Believe it or not, according to the most recent research, disgust seems to win out. Toss those inspirational quotes in the bin and get ready to express some anger.

According to a study published recently in the Journal of Applied Psychology by Dr. Barry Staw from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley and two of his colleagues, Katherine DeCelles and Peter de Goey, a (moderately) angry halftime speech leads to better team performance than one that pulls the heartstrings. For their study, the researchers presented more than 50 Northern California high-school and college basketball coaches with a big ask: They wanted recordings of the coaches' halftime locker room talks. A few coaches dropped out over superstition, but in the end, the researchers got their hands on recordings of 304 speeches and games played by 23 teams.

Coders rated the coaches' emotions during pep talks on a scale from "positive" emotions like pleased, excited, glad, relaxed, and inspired to "negative" emotions like disgusted, nervous, angry, frustrated, sluggish, and fearful. The researchers found that teams were more likely to win when coaches went negative than when they were positive. That was even true when the team was already winning in the first half.

(Don't) Take It to the Limit

Just to make sure the results were real, the researchers invited former high-school and college athletes to watch the speeches. They were asked to rate how motivated they felt after watching each one, and to say what they thought the basketball team should do in response to the coaches' words. This second test confirmed the findings of the first: The moderately unpleasant coaches made participants feel most motivated.

The goal, however, is not just to be as negative as you possibly can. Instead, imagine a bell curve of unpleasantness, with extreme positivity at one end and extreme negativity at the other. The very positive, happy coaches didn't spark redirection in their players at all. In fact, even when teams were winning in the first half, positive speeches made them perform worse in the second half. Performance improved as coaches went more negative but then dropped off completely when coaches started expressing relentless anger (think back to the chair throwing — not good).

In a press release, Staw explained what the right response looks like, "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.'" See how different the "negative" example sounds from an angry, "You suck?"

What About for Business?

This research has some pretty obvious implications for the business world. Staw's findings suggest that the all-positive motivational styles we've been encouraged to use for team leadership could use some adjusting. Leaders should think twice before giving enthusiastic, affirming feedback to less-than-perfect performance. Instead, business leaders might have more success when they limit affirmation and highlight the need for improvement.

At the same time, Staw, DeCelles, and de Goey caution against applying the findings too liberally, especially in business. They recognize that prolonged negative feedback can lead to demoralized employees. And they also note that their findings in the sports world could require some adjustment to fit in the business world.

"Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk," Staw said, "but when you have a very important project or a merger that needs to get done over the weekend, negative emotions can be a very useful arrow to have in your quiver to drive greater performance." So, leaders take note. It might be time to add a dash of "I believe you can do better" to your otherwise positive speeches. No chair throwing, but perhaps some more pushing.

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Written by Kelsey Donk September 10, 2019

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