“Our brain is like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones.” – neuropsychologist Rick Hanson
Have you ever heard of negativity bias? Unless you’re a psychologist or leadership guru, you probably haven’t. However, even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’re familiar with the effect. Negative bias is the psychological phenomenon in which we pay more attention to—and give more weight to—negative occurrences in our life than we do positive experiences.
Scientific research in recent years has determined this is hardwired; even young babies display negative bias. It’s a no-win situation, because even the earliest bad experiences can have lingering effects throughout our lifetimes that impact relationships and careers.
Simply put, we overestimate threats, underestimate opportunities, and underestimate inner and outer resources, according to neuropsychologist Rick Hanson.
As a business owner (and certainly as a manager) that puts you behind the eight-ball at the outset, doesn’t it? It means everyone who is a stakeholder in your company—clients, employees, vendors—will be judging your mistakes too harshly while not giving you enough credit for the good decisions you make. They’ll do this even though it makes things difficult for everyone … including themselves.
One of the reasons negativity so easily spreads from employee to employee is that it’s the path of least resistance, and it’s easy to bring out the worst in each other. It’s so often easier to go down than up.
It won’t take an expert to determine if your business has fallen prey to negative bias. If you see signs of a poor culture such as absenteeism, theft, diminished performance, or even just bad attitudes that seem contagious, it’s time to take action.
- Heal thyself. If you spot some symptoms in your own behavior, address them first. Look for controlling, micromanaging or hypercritical tendencies. You’re openly displaying your own negative bias towards others. Failure to correct this will lead your employees to find ways to internally justify dismissing your opinion when they don’t agree with it.
- Grasp the golden rule. Think of not only how you’d like to be treated, but how you’d like to be treated in the work environment. Know that if you fail to recognize workers for meaningful work, you don’t listen well, or you criticize liberally but not constructively, you’re compounding the problem. Researchers surmise that our human brains have five social needs: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Helping to fill at least some of these needs will boost morale and performance. Don’t heap meaningless praise onto your employees, though. Also, if you must criticize, do so with much thought beforehand. When telling your employees what they’re doing wrong, be sure to also tell them what they’re doing right.
- Create a positive imbalance. We experience bad far more intensely than good. Would you be surprised to know the ratio is 5:1? Keeping your people committed to the cause doesn’t require making that ratio to be even; it requires swinging it the other way. Obviously, you must minimize negative interactions with every tool at your disposal and go out of your way—far out of your way—to ensure positive, meaningful interaction.
The hardest part of eliminating the effects of negativity bias might be admitting its presence in the first place. You must objectively assess the way your human capital is working and interacting with you, with each other and with your clients. Once you know what you need to do, commit to staying the course. Since negativity is ingrained, fighting against it is a battle that must continually be fought.