Bad behavior to others in tough times has more impact than positive gestures

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Bad behavior to others in tough times has more impact than positive gestures

Refraining from bad behavior toward a significant other during stressful life events is more important than showing positive behavior, according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.   

Compared with positive gestures, negative ones tend to trigger more intense and immediate responses, according to the study. And how people work together during trying times is associated with individual well-being as well as satisfaction with the relationship.   

“When people face stressful life events, they are especially sensitive to negative behavior in their relationships, such as when a partner seems to be argumentative, overly emotional, withdrawn or fails to do something that was expected,” said the lead researcher. The same is true, of course of a close colleague or manager.   “In contrast, they’re less sensitive to positive behavior—such as giving each other comfort,” he said.   

The study also found that low doses of a behavior are most important, and over time, more extreme levels have less impact.   “Because people are especially sensitive to negative relationship behavior, a moderate dose may be sufficient to produce a nearly maximum effect on increasing life stress,” the researchers said. “After negative behavior reaches a certain saturation point, it appears that stress is only minimally affected by further increases in the dose of relationship problems.”  

“When people face stressful life events, it’s common to experience both positive and negative behavior in their relationships,” the lead author said. “When the goal is to increase feelings of well-being and lessen stress, it may be more important to decrease negative behavior than to increase positive action.   

So, what? This study confirms earlier research that we are far more affected by negative relational experiences than positive ones. The reason is that our brains are primarily constructed to keep us safe and so it is constantly on the alert for threats and the greatest threat a human can face is abandonment—and bad behavior by someone we consider part of our support network is seen by our system as an abandonment threat.   Added to that stress itself is a threat so negative behaviors by those close to you in times of stress are a double whammy to the system.   

What now? In terms of workplace relationships, it’s obviously important to stress what is positive about the relationship between you and your colleagues or you and your reports and make sure that you refrain from threats or criticism. We work best when we feel safe and we feel safest when we feel valued and least well when we’re threatened or criticized.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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