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Why is a boss usually quicker to yell than praise?

Here’s something we do with a lot of folly: we think about work and want everything we’re thinking, feeling, and discussing to be logical. That’s why so many workplaces are drowned in process. Process is a way of controlling events towards (hopefully) logical outcomes.

However, here’s the problem: until automation gets to full scale, workplaces are typically made up of human beings. Humans are emotional creatures.

Logic and emotion are related, but somewhat distantly.

This logic-emotion divide explains a lot of the issues people have with work, but we tend to (a) ignore this discussion or (b) gloss it over.

We do the same thing with brain science. Our lives are basically what they are because of our brains; think about the connotation for a term like “brain dead.” As such, our brains — and especially how we process information and make decisions — are hugely important aspects of work. You could make an argument that every executive should get some neuroscience refreshers every few years. It’s honestly that important. (I’d get laughed out of every company in the world for proposing that.)

None of this ever happens, of course — full speed ahead on what you understand, often without questioning or adjusting anything unless there’s a big revenue hit.

Meanwhile, if you actually studied how brains work, you’d realize work itself doesn’t make much sense to humans.

And now we’ve got another brick in that building.

Yelling vs. praising

Many — not all — bosses lean towards the former. But why?

A partial answer:

“Part of the reason we are so quick to be outraged, yet slow to offer gratitude at work and in life, more broadly, is because of the widespread finding that human beings possess a negativity bias,” says Christian Thoroughgood, assistant professor of psychology at Villanova University.  He says that even when they’re of equal intensity, negative events and experiences have a much more potent effect on our thoughts, emotions, and behavior than do neutral or positive events and experiences.

Yep. There is other research on this. Most employee thoughts in a given day are in fact negative, and daily frustrations are 5x more impactful to employees than any praise/gratitude received.

The other reason bosses yell, is, of course…

… they might be an asshole themselves. Assholes, especially assholes under stress, are not particularly great people in terms of screeching at you.

The bigger picture

Largely what we do with work is this:

  • Bunch of unclear priorities
  • Really the goal is making money but we aren’t supposed to acknowledge that
  • “Get more done with less”
  • Misaligned incentives
  • Stress
  • Politics
  • Job roles that probably never needed to exist
  • Everything is supposedly urgent
  • We absolutely want to be seen as good, performing, and relevant
  • Work is where we put up a lot of time, so maybe a side of self-worth too?

That’s a tremendously fraught series of bullet points, right? Sometimes people are going to yell. It’s a powder keg. Some actually have equated it to “chimp rape.”

A lot of times, people yelling at you — work, personal, whatever — is because they themselves are scared of something and don’t know how better to present it out. That’s often true at work. It’s scary. No one knows what the future holds, and the present is usually a bunch of run-around-in-circles task stuff (oh, and meetings). So bosses yell. It’s part brain science and part “This is logically what would happen in this situation.” We need to acknowledge this, though — instead of just coming out with more process to supposedly “manage it out.”

Ted Bauer

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