By Yvonne Milosevic
Imagine walking into the locker room at halftime during a college basketball game. Frustrated with the team, the angry coach lays into players for their poor performance, mistakes made, and for not trying hard enough. Heavy tension blankets the scene. Flash forward to the second half of the game. Would you bet the players’ performance sank further after that tongue lashing or improved?
A paper published in the Journal of Applied Psychology strongly suggests the answer is the latter. UC Berkeley Haas School Professor Emeritus Barry Staw and colleagues found that, under certain circumstances, anger motivates more effectively than inspirational talk.
In an analysis of hundreds of basketball half-time pep talks, they discovered that teams often played significantly better in the second half after an angry coach had delivered negative speeches.
“That was even true if the team was already ahead at halftime,” Staw shared with the Haas School newsroom. “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’.”
Oh, to be a fly on the locker room wall
The researchers gathered their intel with the help of dozens of high school and college basketball coaches in Northern California. At first, some coaches balked at letting the researchers record the goings-on in their inner sanctum. One stopped participating midway through, out of superstition. “The coach complained that every time we taped the game, they lost,” Staw said.
In the end, Staw and his colleagues reviewed speeches from 304 games played by 23 teams. Trained coders then rated the emotions of each halftime talk. The results showed that teams generally performed better after an angry coach had issued a negative halftime speech. That is, unless they were too negative.
Researchers found that exceedingly negative expressions can impede performance. “We’re talking Bobby Knight–level, when you’re throwing chairs,” said Staw, referring to the notoriously bad-tempered former head coach of the Indiana Hoosiers.
Implications at the office
Prevailing leadership trends focus on using positive methods to drive employee performance. Still, Staw thinks there can be a place for negative emotion in your motivational arsenal.
“We sometimes strip content from emotion, treating it as simply positive or negative expression, but emotion often has a message carried along with it that causes people to listen and pay attention, as leaders try to correct or redirect behavior.”
Obviously, the basketball locker room is not the same as the modern workplace. And Staw and his colleagues caution against applying these findings too liberally. Continual negative feedback typically leads to demoralized employees. But for short-term boosts of motivation, their research suggests a stern approach might have value.
In certain situations, for example, getting an immediate performance boost is critical. Here, a manager might deliver a dose of anger and disappointment to the team that leads to renewed effort and improved results.
“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.”