Leadership and Negativity Bias

As a leader you're trying to effect change in your organization.

So, what do you do when you run across this:

This change is wrong. Why are you doing this thing that damages our culture? Before you make any changes you should have consulted the whole organization.

Let me say first, if you actually get this question, consider yourself lucky. It means people trust you and you have made some progress already. You also may not hear it. But many will be thinking it as you try to make changes and improvements.

So what is this, exactly?

This is negativity bias.

You have change occurring in your company (who doesn't). This person is looking at it and their brain is processing the information. The first thing it is going to do is look for threats. Evolution has programmed us this way.

"Where is the bear?" this person's brain is saying, "If there's a bear around here. I don't want to get eaten."

Of course, there isn't a bear (hopefully) but our brain is going to look anyway. Specifically, this is being done by primitive parts of our brain that don't handle logical reasoning.

So, you can't reason with it. Not really.

Things you should do:

  1. Listen
  2. Respond with empathy
  3. Give people space to process.
  4. Encourage questions.

Things you shouldn't do:

  1. Don't tolerate overt negativity or poison attitudes in group settings. Take people out of rooms if they seem to be going overboard.
  2. Don't react strongly to concern or fear.
  3. Don't go into authoritarian "Do it because I said so." mode.

Depending on the stage you're in, questioning can mostly be encouraged. Questions can make a policy or change better.

People do come around to positive intent, but they need time and you need to encourage them to consider things from different angles.

Your focus as a leader should be answering questions, not reacting strongly to negative emotions, and listening to concerns.

Now, when a manager or another leader sees this and says, "Why can't so-and-so assume positive intent?" You now know the answer - we're programmed not to.

If you really want to tackle this head on, a mindfulness program can take you far. It gets at the root of the fundamental issue and helps people understand their brains better.

They'll still experience negativity bias. You can't stop that. But they can be better prepared to handle it.

You can also use something more traditional like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People which tackles the same issue from a different angle.

As leaders it is up to us to understand both the source of these challenges and help people become their best selves, including managing their responses to challenging situations.

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