The negativity bias, is it at play in your business and how to manage it

Thursday 25 May, 2017

Do you recognise this experience?

Yesterday at work something happened that wasn’t particularly pleasant. Perhaps a customer complained or an employee phoned in sick unexpectedly and you were relying on them. There were a lot of good things that happened but as you are getting ready to head into work today, you can’t stop thinking about that one negative thing. As you think about it you can feel a physical reaction. The more you try to put it out of your mind the more you end up thinking about it.

If you recognise that experience or something similar, thats what psychologists call the negativity bias.

The physical responses are the bodies way of responding to what it perceives as a potential threat. I need to apologise up front here as I will go into a bit of depth in explaining the negativity bias. But that’s because the answer to how to handle this lies in understanding it.

Human beings evolved in an environment where we were in constant danger. Our brain needed to recognise and respond to that danger very quickly. As we roamed the wilderness we weren't bigger or faster than the animals that preyed on us. The early brain had one major task, keep us safe. In order to do that it needed to recall where the lions were, where the cliff edge was etc. This means we evolved to remember negative experiences quicker and for much longer than positive ones. If you forgot where those nice berries were, well you had another chance to find them tomorrow. But if you forgot about that lion there may not be a tomorrow!

So why does that matter in today’s working environment?

Well our workplaces in 2017 are not laden with the dangers that we encountered on the savannahs but our brain responds as if they are! It sees minor problems as the lion and activates your body accordingly.

It’s a big error to underestimate the impact of the negativity bias within the working world both short and long term.

Imagine for a moment your in a conversation with a colleague. They tell you all the things that they think you are doing well. Then in the conversation they happen to mention that they think you are not good at X. That one negative will stick in your brain for much longer than all of the praise. Gnawing away and keeping heightened levels of stress hormones in your system.

Here are some more examples:

  • You conduct a customer feedback survey. You get fifteen excellent reviews and one very poor review. Your brain is hardwired to give extra weight to that poor review. You spend a disproportionate amount of time focusing on the negative review rather than celebrating the positives. 
  • If you add actually seeing something negative, to this tendency, it increases the impact. Numerous researchers have shown that there’s a greater surge in electrical activity in the brain when we see a picture of something we perceive as negative than when we see a picture of something we view as positive. 
  • Furthermore research has also demonstrated that when we allow our mind to drift we are far more likely to recall things associated with negative emotions than ones associated with positive emotions. 

When the negativity bias is at play in our business environments there is a measurable deterioration in innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity and resilience.

Couple this with the long term impact of exposure to stress hormones it all becomes a recipe for underperformance.

What can you do about this?

The good news is that being conscious of the negativity bias is all it takes to counterbalance it.

When you start to feel that you are dwelling on a negative experience, no matter how small, it’s worth asking these questions below:

  • What positive events are occurring right now?
  • Am I reacting in proportion to the actual event?
  • Are past experiences colouring my view and making a positive a negative?
  • Am I reacting negatively because I’m busy, tired, under the weather etc?

Just this simple process of asking these questions can have a very positive impact. Give it a try.



Alex Couley

About the contributor:

Alex is a coach, author, public speaker and is recognised as an international figure in leadership development, leadership/business coaching and positive psychology. Furthermore he is a Director and founder of the International Centre for Leadership Coaching. A organisation that specialises in assisting leaders and managers to utilise coaching skills to enhance their leadership abilities. In this role he has trained hundreds of managers/leaders in the practical implementation of coaching and how to embed a coaching culture.

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