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What is negativity bias? And how to overcome it at work

Overcoming the negativity bias: There is currently a “permacrisis” of disruption, but is the world really that bad? Davos 2023

Overcoming the negativity bias: There is currently a “permacrisis” of disruption, but is the world really that bad? Image: jessicahtam/Flickr

Alex Liu
Chairman Emeritus, Partner, Kearney
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Negativity bias is universal – our brains are wired to look for the bad in the world.
  • During this time of permacrisis, here's how to overcome negativity bias and use conviction to diminish our sense of helplessness.
  • In the workplace, focusing on people, praise and purpose can create a culture in which conviction can thrive.

There is currently a “permacrisis” of disruption on every conceivable front, fuelled by volcanic eruptions that have simmered beneath the surface for years. From human-induced trauma such as war, inflation and recession; to cybercrime and real-world malfeasance, they all coalesce into a cacophony of negativity. But is the world really that bad?

Are our echo-chamber predictions – whether rosy, cloudy or enigmatic – nothing more than unproductive undertakings? Should we stay in a fetal position, surrounded by downside scenarios? Or should we move on from the constant negative predictions to a more uplifting conviction? Perhaps conviction is our kryptonite for diminishing this relentless sense of helplessness.

Negativity bias is universal. We all have it, and we’re actually programmed to focus on it. As psychologist and author Rick Hanson says: “Our brains are wired to scout for the bad stuff.” This means we’re more attracted to trainwrecks than, say, happy cats on the internet.

Negativity bias is universal. We all have it, and we’re actually programmed to focus on it.
Negativity bias is universal. We all have it, and we’re actually programmed to focus on it. Image: versusthemachines and The Decision Lab

Bizarre as it might sound, it all harkens back to our primordial survival instinct – the fight-or-flight response – which is why we pay so much attention to the things we can’t control, even though they cause our stress and cortisol levels to skyrocket.

Predicting bad things seems to have become its own sub-economy, but to paraphrase something I read some time ago: “Anyone who tells you they can predict the future is either a liar or a management consultant – or both.”

So what can we do to overcome this negativity bias? Here are a few ideas:

Change the game

When toxicity lives rent-free in our heads, it’s bad news for everything from productivity to engagement to retention. Imagine you’ve fallen and are lying in a ditch. Where do your thoughts turn? Some people can only focus on the dirt walls around them and what is trapping them there. Others are able to imagine their way out of the situation, to see the bigger picture of recovery (getting their breath back), rebounding (getting a hand or a leg up out of the ditch), and then reinvention (getting back on the proverbial horse).

Have you read?

Move from prediction to conviction

Can being more optimistic about what we can control – our mindset, the culture of the businesses and communities we lead, our strategic direction, our ikigai (or reason for being) – make a difference? Some of the world’s best companies were created during a recession. And the gap between the winners and the losers tends to widen when recessions come to an end. While those who stay stuck in the ditch struggle to survive, those that are able to keep a positive mindset usually come out on top.

Own what we can control

How can we craft cultures that are joyful and meaningful? How do we create the conditions for conviction to trump prediction, where our colleagues feel like they are in the right place, have something valuable to contribute and that this is all within their control?

For me, the answer lies in ensuring that every individual feels safe and inspired at work by focusing on people, praise and purpose.

People are about seeing others for who they are, letting them know it’s okay just to be themselves, that they’re not cogs in a machine but rather part of the solution. This creates a sense of belonging, and if you also create the connection points that enable your people to come together, you end up with “human magic”.

In many organizations, praise is really underrated. It’s not just about calling out the people who’ve achieved some pre-set target. It’s about letting individuals and groups know that their self-directed efforts are appreciated, that they are seen and appreciated and that they’ve made an impact. I like to encourage showing appreciation for colleagues at all levels.

Purpose really comes back to this idea of conviction, of knowing what we are here to do, where we find our zest for life and how we get to apply that. As leaders, it’s our job to help marry individual purpose with institutional purpose – what you’re good at versus what the world needs – so people can find the right balance for themselves. This is what the ancient tradition of ikigai is really all about.

When we live in joy, it works. Research shows how impactful something as simple as a smile, for example, can be, not only for the recipient but also for our own well-being.

Whether enduring natural or man-made disruption, whether an earthquake or a “lifequake”, the kryptonite of conviction can pay off. As the simple prayer goes: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen to greater conviction.

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May 21, 2024

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