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Negativity Bias is a Real Thing

3 tips for dealing with it in the workplace!

Have you ever noticed that when you have an argument with someone, you replay all their faults over and over in your head for hours after the argument is over?

Or after you’ve had your annual performance review, you focus on the one negative comment, rather than the nine other positive ones you heard?

Or while scrolling through your daily news feed, you’re compelled to open the most negative stories first?

These are all examples of our ‘negativity bias’, a psychological phenomenon that states ‘as humans we tend to be impacted much more by negative events than positive ones’. In other words, we pay more attention to bad things, therefore making them seem more important than they really are.

The belief is that this neurological tendency is a leftover practice from our ancestors. In order to survive, they needed to be on constant alert for any potential danger, and that genetic hardwiring was then passed down through the generations to keep us safe. Thankfully, circumstances have changed, and there are no longer saber-tooth tigers around every corner. But this tendency to focus on the negative can, and in many cases does, actually make our lives more difficult.

We see examples of negativity bias in our workplaces every day.

  • The resistance to change; people clinging to negative experiences from past changes and believing that anything new will be fraught with issues ‘just like before’.

  • Team members who view everything with a ‘glass half empty’ perspective and have to be convinced or lobbied for their support.

  • Employees believing the worst possible scenario in the absence of fact.

The risk here is if this kind of negativity isn’t dealt with and managed, it can permeate the workplace culture and impact everything from recruitment and retention to reputation.

It’s possible to rewire our brains to become more likely to, and comfortable with, looking for the positive first, but that must be a conscious choice by the individual which takes discipline and practice. We can’t make those choices for our team members, but there are some key things to keep in mind in the meantime that will help manage the impact of the negativity bias.

1. Don’t be reactive to negativity. Recognize the pattern for what it is. We all have down days, but a persistent pattern of negativity that’s affecting others needs to be dealt with. Things will not change by remaining silent, so rather than giving the negativity more oxygen in a public setting, sit down with the person one-on-one and discuss the behaviour you’re observing. The point is to try to reach a rational perspective, so do your best to understand where the negativity is coming from but stay at a factual level rather than talking about ‘potential’ negative outcomes.

2. Ensure leadership and management are aligned on how to approach negativity. It’s important that senior leadership and management have a conversation about the organization’s tolerance for negative behaviour and come to an agreement on how it will be handled. If everyone is left to their own devices, you will very likely be giving mixed messages to employees which will only pour gas on the fire.

3. Hire the right employees and let go of the wrong ones. The best way to proactively avoid negativity is to hire people who are optimistic and believe they can solve problems. Candidates that believe in the goodness of people and whose values are aligned with the organization. Cultural fit, in our experience, is one of the most overlooked and undervalued aspects of recruitment. You can teach people skills, but you can’t teach attitude, so save yourself a lot of time and turnover by closely vetting the candidate you’re considering to assess if they will be the right ‘fit’.

And on the flip side, if you’ve got someone on the team who you just can’t find common positive ground with and whose negative behaviour isn’t improving when they’re held accountable, the best thing for all involved is to be willing to remove them before they do more damage to the culture.

So, although humans have a neurological tendency to look for and focus on what’s not going well, it’s something that can be overcome. And as leaders we can set the tone by consciously framing things in the most positive way possible, paying attention to the language we use, and highlighting the behaviours, accomplishments, and experiences that demonstrate there is lots of good to focus on.

If you’re interested in learning more about how people think, take a few moments to watch this interesting TedTalk by Alison Ledgerwood that talks about how we get stuck in the negatives, and how to get unstuck.

“Being positive in a negative situation is not naïve. It is leadership.”

-Ralph Marston

You can’t have a good day with a bad attitude, and you can’t have a bad day with a good attitude.”

You cannot hang out with negative people and expect to live a positive life.”



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