Learning & Development, Talent

What’s the Value of Negative Motivation?

Whether it’s children, pets, or employees, most people are familiar with the two basic methods of motivation: positive and negative. One can either praise desirable behavior or punish undesirable behavior.


The relative use of both has fluctuated over the years. Most people are familiar with the stereotype of the angry, screaming boss from decades past, but the modern trend is much more in favor of positive motivation.

Study Suggests Yelling Can Get Results, At Least in Sports

Even today, however, there are those who see great value in a little yelling and screaming. “It seems that yelling at people can generate, at times, better results,” says Gene Marks in an article for Entrepreneur. “At least that’s the finding of a study conducted of basketball coaches last year by the University of California, Berkeley Professor Emeritus Barry Staw and his team of researchers and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.”

The study involved over 50 high school and college basketball coaches over the course of more than 300 games. The results showed a “strong and clear relationship” between the more negative halftime speeches and second half performance.

Do These Results Transfer to the Business Environment?

So, what does this mean for business leaders? Is it time to start cracking the whip again? Not exactly. Both Marks and Staw suggest that occasional negative motivation can help drive results in some situations but caution against making it the norm.

“Our results do not give leaders a license to be a jerk,” Staw says, “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.”

We would also caution that a leader must weigh the short-term benefits of such an approach against the long-term impact of potentially decreased morale, which can impact engagement, productivity, recruitment, and retention.

The trend in recent decades has been to move away from negative motivation in favor of positive motivation, and in general, that move makes sense.

However, managers should also understand there is still a time and place for targeted negative motivation. Employees need to know when their performance isn’t meeting expectations and when they need to step it up.