Negative or Positive Engagement: What’s More Effective?

You can get results from people using a variety of techniques and tricks. Tricks work…to a point.

A True Story From Middle School

The 7th graders filed back into class Monday morning very excited. Their weekend assignment was to sell something, then tell the class about it.

Little Sally led off: “I sold girl scout cookies and I made $30,” she said proudly, “I sold something that people love.”

“Very good,” said the teacher. “Who’s next?”

Little Jenny was stood up: “I sold magazines,” she said, “I made $45. I explained to everyone that magazines would make them smarter. Who doesn’t want to be smarter?”

“Very good, Jenny,” said the teacher. “Now who would like to go next?”

Little Johnny stood up and walked to the front of the classroom. Then he dumped a box full of cash on the teacher’s desk.

“I made $2,467 selling toothbrushes,” he said. “I found the busiest corner in town, and I gave away free samples of chips and dip to everyone who walked by.”

“Wait a minute, Johnny. What does that have to do with toothbrushes?” his teacher asked with suspicion.

“All of the people said the same thing: ‘Hey! This dip tastes like dog poop!’ Then I would say, ‘It is dog poop. Wanna buy a toothbrush?'”

(Yes, I do have two grade school children at home. Why do you ask?)

Negativity Sells…To A Point

You can engage people in your cause by selling negativity and fear. Politicians do it all of the time. Heck, two of the men-who-would-be-President are doing it right now. We expect negativity in politics. And it’s effective. Even if a candidate has no positive position to sell, he can point out the scary and undesirable traits in his opponent. This approach leads some voters to head to the poles to vote against a candidate they actively abhor instead of one they actively adore.

Negative Engagement Increases Performance…To A Point

Have you ever had a boss (or have you ever been a boss) who offered negative engagement to your employees? By negative engagement, I mean that you rely on negative reinforcement to get employees to do what you want them to do. Here are some examples of how employees might be “engaged” under negative reinforcement:

  • They stay late getting an assignment done today TO AVOID having to come in early tomorrow
  • They make suggestions at my team meetings TO AVOID looking stupid or having no good ideas
  • They work through their break to increase their productivity TO AVOID being publicly reprimanded for falling behind

In each of the situations above, employees engage a little…just enough to avoid problems. But negative engagement gets you nothing more than compliance to do enough to get by. And it comes with a high cost: resentment.

Beyond Avoidance and into the Light

Years ago, I had a lily on a plant stand by my living room window. That lily was a most responsive plant. When it needed water, it would sag; once watered, it would perk up almost immediately. Another thing that amazed me about that plant is how it would seek the sunlight. I’d rotate the pot so the leaves and flowers would lean towards the open room instead of the window. Then after a matter of days, I’d need to rotate the pot again because the plant would start leaning to the light. That light is positive reinforcement. And positive reinforcement creates engaged plants…and people.

Tricks work. You can manipulate or scare people into action. But that’s being pragmatic without being principled. And besides, you can achieve so much more when you are the sunlight. What can you do ? Try these 3 simple tips today to actively and positively engage your people:


Instead of saying, “You should do this in order to avoid this bad thing from happening”, look for something in your employees that would inspire you to say: Thank you. I appreciate you. You are neat. Awesome work. You rock. Nice job. No, you don’t have to say it insincerely to someone who’s not performing. But do say it those who earn it. Those who haven’t earned positive recognition will get the idea of what gets noticed. Your recognition is the light to each employee.


Instead of trying to be fair with opportunities you offer your employees, dole out the best opportunities to those who earn it. Let it be known that EVERYONE can earn a shot at getting cherry jobs, but the standards are based on performance. Again, you’re not motivating your employees to avoid anything; rather, you are encouraging them to reach for something they want, like the plant growing towards the light.


Really? Yes. Unlike recognition and opportunity, kindness shouldn’t be contingent on performance. As a leader choosing to lead with positive engagement, kindness is at your core. Kindness should be hardwired into your DNA. Saying “Good morning. How are you today?” is freely offered to all employees, just like the rain that falls on the peonies and the poison ivy alike. Engaging leaders are all-inclusive when it comes to showing courtesy and respect to others.


Yes, if you offer people dog poop, they will likely take your toothbrush. But if you offer people sunlight, you create a burning desire in them to follow you. How are you going to lead today?

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