Getting to grips with negativity bias

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Human beings have a natural tendency to focus on the negative aspects of experience. It makes sense that we do this, given that we are hard-wired to keep ourselves safe. This is negativity bias – the tendency we have to “attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” (Vaish, Grossmann & Woodward, 2008).  The down-side of negativity bias for leaders is that it can take you into all sorts of unhelpful coping strategies, such as avoidance and distraction. 

Overall, your negativity bias is unlikely to serve you well if you want to be a fully present, authentic leader, and if you want to face up to the reality of what’s involved in leadership. The reality is, leadership is not easy, especially in these complex and challenging times.

Negativity bias results in a noticeable asymmetry in the way people relate to the negative and positive experiences of leadership. In other words – some of us are “glass half full”, and some of us are “glass half empty”. I remember some very difficult times when I was a CEO, when I could only see the negative things that were going on. When I was in the grip of negativity bias, the first word to come out of my mouth, when I was having an important conversation, was very often “no”. This is despite the fact that I am normally a very optimistic person. My negativity bias seems to kick in at the very times when it would be more helpful for me to focus on the positive.

If you’re a leader who’s in the grip of negativity bias, you will tend to focus more on the critical feedback you receive than the compliments, and to have stronger responses to negative events than positive ones. Even if you have several wins or positive experiences on a given day, it only takes one negative experience and your attitude – and confidence – can quickly take a dive. You may end up ruminating on your negative experiences, and even minor negative events can become magnified in your mind. 

Emotions are always present in the workplace – our own and other people’s – and our negativity bias means that negative emotions stay with us much longer than positive emotions. (Larsen, 2009). This inevitably impacts on our relationships with the people we lead, and can be a real barrier to building trust and connection. Our negativity bias can impact on the impressions we have of other people, and on decisions we make about them. If you’re really in the grip of negativity bias, you might assume the worst about another person, rather than giving them the benefit of more generous assumptions. 

All of this makes it difficult to provide positive support and encouragement to the people you lead, and to give effective feedback. And, of course, the feedback goes both ways. With negativity bias, you may find it more difficult to hear and receive feedback – both positive and negative.

Working with negativity bias

Leadership presence involves being fully present to our experience – whatever that is. If our experience is negative, there’s no doubt it can be exceptionally difficult to stay present. Working with negativity bias is how we learn to be present in even the most challenging of situations.  In every moment, we can choose how we direct our attention, and the responses we have to our negative experiences. By directing our attention towards positive feelings, thoughts and experiences, we can begin to address the asymmetry of negativity bias.

The important message here is not that we need to eliminate negative thoughts, emotions or experiences, because the reality is, they are going to be present for all leaders at some point in time. Nor am I talking about adopting a fake veneer of positivity when, frankly, things are not positive at all. What really matters is what you do with the inevitable negativity that you will encounter as a leader, and how you work with negativity bias.

With self-awareness, you can choose to challenge your negative self-talk, and to make generous assumptions about other people. You can notice the unhelpful behaviours that come with your negativity bias – like avoidance and distraction, and choose to stop these behaviours when they’re no longer serving you. 

Research suggests that simply increasing the number of positive comments you make, compared with the negative comments, can go a long way towards addressing negativity bias. It has been suggested that a ratio of five positive comments to one negative comment is the right ratio to aim for. (Zenger & Folkman, 2013). This could be a useful experiment to try. Monitor the comments you make to other people and aim for the 5:1 ratio. Do you notice any shift in your negativity bias, and in the quality of your relationships?

Expect to be more flexible as a leader

Leaders who get to grips with negativity bias will notice greater flexibility in the face of change. Imagine being able to stay in flow, and maintain your focus and calm at work, even when unexpected changes are thrown at you? Imagine being so flexible that you can adapt, as needed, when you’re dealing with really complex or difficult changes?

Leading change can be one of the most challenging aspects of leadership, but it’s also one of the most important things we do as leaders, with the potential to be both satisfying and impactful. When you lead from a firm foundation of presence, you will never be derailed by change, or find yourself ruminating about the negative aspects of change. Instead, you will have great capacity to stay positive, and to be flexible in the face of change. 

You can find out more about how leadership presence can transform your leadership in my recent Blog article on presence. Courageous leaders choose presence instead of distraction, and they are willing to sit with the negative aspects of experience, and to proactively focus on the positive.

It really does help to find more enjoyment in your life to counter the pull of distraction and negativity. I encourage you to savour the positive experiences you have in your leadership. Take the time to consciously reflect on and enjoy your successes, and the experiences you enjoy. The more you bring this positive focus into your leadership, the more you can counteract the natural tendency we all have towards negativity bias. 

Courageous leaders spot their negativity bias and are willing to take action to tackle it. This is at the heart of courageous leadership

Maria Brett
The Growing Edge

Maria Brett is a former CEO who has been a practitioner of mindfulness for more than 25 years. Maria’s Courageous Leadership Program helps participants make deep and lasting to the way they lead, including how to lead culture change.  To find out more, contact Maria.

References

Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383–403.

Larsen, R. (2009). The contributions of positive and negative affect to emotional well-being. Psihologijske Teme, 18(2), 247–266.

Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2013). The ideal praise-to-criticism ratio. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism

© Maria Brett, 2023