Working Conversations Episode 165:

Navigating Negativity Bias at Work


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Have you ever noticed how easy it is to get bogged down by negativity at work?

You’re not alone. You might be one of those who are experiencing negativity bias; an overlooked psychological phenomenon that profoundly affects our workplace dynamics.

Negativity bias is the tendency to focus on the negative aspects of experience.  It can shape our perceptions, influence our interactions, and impact our overall work environment.

In this episode, we dive into this intriguing concept, as I share my understanding of human psychology, shedding light on why our brains tend to focus on the negative and how this bias can impact our professional lives.

I share a step-by-step approach to address overly negative colleagues constructively.

I'll discuss the importance of empathy in understanding the root causes of negativity, how to present the impacts of negative behavior in a way that fosters awareness, and the power of suggesting practical solutions. Additionally, I'll emphasize the role of fostering open dialogue to create a supportive and positive work environment.

By the end of this episode, you'll be equipped with valuable tools to navigate workplace negativity, promote productivity, and enhance collaboration among your team. 

So, whether you're struggling with your own negative thoughts or dealing with a negative a team member, this episode is packed with insights and strategies to help you navigate workplace negativity.

Listen and catch the full episode
here or wherever you listen to podcasts. You can also watch it and replay it on my YouTube channel, JanelAndersonPhD.

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Hello and welcome to another episode of the Working Conversations podcast where we talk all things leadership, business, communication and trends in organizational life. I'm your host, Dr. Janel Anderson.

Today, we're diving into a fascinating yet often overlooked psychological phenomenon that profoundly affects our workplace dynamics: Negativity Bias.  Negativity bias is the tendency to focus on the negative aspects of experience.  It can shape our perceptions, influence our interactions, and impact our overall work environment. Whether it's a critical comment from a manager or a perpetually pessimistic coworker, understanding negativity bias is crucial. In this episode, we'll unpack what negativity bias is, how it manifests in the workplace, and, most importantly, how we can counteract its effects to foster a more positive and productive work environment.

This topic of the episode was generated by a listener who wrote me an email. I asked her permission to share the email in the podcast and my answer too, because I think negativity bias happens a lot at work, and my response may be helpful for you.

Please know that I have changed or omitted names, industries and all other identifying details about the people involved. Here is the edited email that I received.

“Hi Dr. Anderson, I hope this email finds you well, I'm reaching out to you because I'm facing a challenge at work that I believe your expertise could help me navigate. I work as a project manager in a tech company, and overall, I really enjoy my job and the team that I work with. However, there's one issue that's been increasingly frustrating for me, my coworker, Jeff. Jeff has a strong tendency to be incredibly negative. No matter how well things are going, he always finds something to complain about and some potential issue to focus on. For example, we recently received very positive feedback from our senior leadership team about our project, but instead of celebrating the success, Jeff immediately started pointing out minor criticisms and potential problems down the road. This pattern has been consistent, and it's starting to take a toll on the team morale and my own motivation. I want to address the issue constructively without causing conflict and making Jeff feel attacked. However, I'm not sure how to approach the conversation effectively. I know that you have a lot of experience in workplace dynamics and managing difficult conversations, so I was hoping you could offer me some advice on the best way to handle this. Any guidance or resources you could provide would be incredibly helpful. I really want to find a solution that improves the team dynamics and helps Jeff see the value in balancing his feedback. Thank you so much for your time and assistance, and look forward to hearing from you. Best regards, Sarah.”

Now negativity bias can strike at any time, and it's not just our coworkers. We can have a predisposition towards it too. So as I cover this topic, I'm going to talk about what to do if you are experiencing negativity bias yourself, and what to do if you find yourself in Sarah's shoes.

So first of all, let's look at understanding negativity bias. It sounds ominous, right? It's that pesky little tendency that we humans have to focus on the negative rather than on the positive.

Now picture this. Maybe you receive 10 compliments and one piece of criticism. This happens to me as a keynote speaker, I will receive hundreds of good reviews and one person who was critical about something I said in my speech. What do you dwell on? Well as do I that one piece of criticism? So negativity bias is innately human, and it is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history.

Back in the day, our ancestors had to be hyper aware of dangers like saber tooth tigers and poisonous berries. Fast forward to today, where the dangers have evolved into deadlines and demanding bosses, but our brains are still wired to focus on the bad stuff.

So in essence, it keeps us alive, but when negativity bias manifests in the workplace, it can keep us really irritated and maybe up at night. So let's take a look at this ancient survival mechanism and how it plays out in the modern office. Remember that the negative feedback is going to stick with you longer than feedback.

So your manager says, great job on a project, but you're still replaying that one time that she said, we need to sit down and talk about your performance. Now this bias doesn't just affect our self esteem, it also impacts our relationships with our colleagues, so a single snarky comment can sour your perception of a coworker, making you forget all the times that they've been helpful.

And when it comes to decision making, a focus on potential pitfalls can make us overly cautious and risk averse, hindering innovation and problem solving and all the good things we want to have happen in the workplace. So we need to understand the effects of persistent negativity, because negativity and bringing up the risks once in a while is fine. In fact, it's even a good thing.

But persistent negativity can be a real downer, literally, emotionally. It's exhausting. It's like carrying around a backpack full of rocks. Every negative interaction adds another stone, and this emotional weight drags down productivity and it drags down performance.

You spend so much time and energy worrying about what could go wrong that you don't have a lot of time left to actually get anything done. And on a larger scale, if a culture of negativity takes root, it can spread like a bad smell permeating every corner of the workplace and turning it into a less than pleasant place to be, like Sarah is experiencing.

So let me give you some strategies for managing negativity. And first, we'll look at ourselves. How do we tackle this negativity beast? Well, first, self awareness is our key tool start by catching yourself in the act of negative thinking, maybe even before you say something out loud. If you find yourself spiraling into a pit of doom and gloom, well, take a step back and ask yourself, Is it really that bad, or is this that thing that Dr Janel Anderson was talking about, that negativity bias.

Now let's talk about when it actually manifests in our communication, both when we hear ourselves say something negative or when we're dealing with people who are overly negative, it is crucial to try to move into a constructive frame of mind. So imagine it's yourself. When you hear yourself say that negative thing. It's okay to press the pause button on yourself and say, Wait a minute. Let me reframe that and try again.

Now, imagine you're dealing with a coworker who is always negative, like Sarah, and I'll give you a specific step by step technique, as you probably guessed I would. But imagine you've got a coworker who's always complaining about the latest company policy, the latest change in management, anything, instead of joining in the pity party, make sure you are keeping things positive yourself.

You might say, “You know what, I see your point. But what can we do to make the best of a new situation or a challenging situation, or even just simply this situation, and not label it as negative in it in any way yourself.” Now, positive reinforcement can help as well make it a habit to recognize and celebrate the small wins with somebody who usually is negative. So when they do offer some positive praise or say something that's even neutral, you can help balance out their negative feedback by reminding them that that those positive comments, or even the neutral comments, are helpful as well.

So creating a positive work environment involves more than just hanging up, you know, motivational posters engage in team building activities that are actually fun. Let's scrap that last sentence. Now, stress might be what's behind the other person's negativity, and this is where empathy really comes in. And I want you to think about being empathetic with yourself and with the other person. Of course, managing your own stress is critical that also think about how the person might be managing or not doing such a great job at managing their own stress, because, again, that can play a big role in it. So as it relates to yourself, practice mindfulness, take regular breaks and don't underestimate the power of a good walk outside, some fresh air and some time in nature can really change your perspective and make you feel more positive.

Likewise, so can listening to music, whether that is warm, soothing classical music, or whether it is some upbeat rock tune that really gets you in a better mood. Sometimes, just stepping away from your desk to step outside or listen to some music can help you return with a clearer, more positive mindset.

Okay, so let's really dig into when it is a crabby coworker who is negative all the time. What do you do when you find yourself in a situation like Sarah did? Well, first off, when faced with a perpetually negative coworker or manager, as I mentioned before, empathy is key. Empathy is your secret weapon.

First of all, try to understand where they're coming from. Maybe they're dealing with pressures that you're not aware of, whether those be inside of work or outside of work. Now that said, it's also important to set boundaries protect your own mental health by limiting the time that you spend with negative individuals when possible.

So fostering some open dialog with them can be incredibly effective as well. If those negative comments are really dragging down, not only you, but the whole team, address it head on in a constructive manner. Sometimes just bringing awareness to the issue can help shift the dynamic.

In fact, here is the specific step by step advice that I gave to Sarah. Step one, reflect and plan before approaching Jeff, Sarah needs to take some time to reflect on the specific instances where his negativity has been particularly disruptive. In fact, it makes a list of those moments focusing on the impact that they had on the team and the project outcomes. She can present concrete examples rather than vague complaints.

Now, if you're familiar with my work on difficult conversations, it comes right down to the process of laying out the facts and leading to the organizational impact of those facts. So you're going to hear some of those themes in the process I shared with Sarah, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself now.

Step two is choosing the right time and place. Sarah needs to do this as a private conversation with Jeff, rather than bringing it up in a meeting or in a group setting, because I mean quite simply, he might feel attacked, even if it's not in a team meeting, if other people are within earshot, say if they're in the office, he might feel attacked or embarrassed that other people are listening to this conversation. So select a time when neither of you is stressed or under a really tight deadline, and then find a private space to talk now, Sarah should also ensure that they have enough time to discuss the issue without interruptions or without leaving the topic unfinished.

Step three, Sarah needs to start with empathy. When she sits down with Jeff, she needs to begin with an empathetic statement. She can acknowledge that everyone brings different perspectives and that she values his attention to detail. Now only if that's true. Of course, she might say something like, Jeff, I really appreciate how thorough you are in identifying potential risks. It's important for our projects. Now again, only say that if it's true.

Now this is very similar to my difficult conversation model, which in which I stress the importance of starting with something that the other person agrees with, that's related to the issue at hand. When we're in agreement, by nature, we are not defensive, because the human brain doesn't have anything to defend itself from. It's not feeling threatened. So that's where you want to start the conversation. And you may need to dig deep into your empathy to find some sort of upside to what the person is doing, what their behaviors impact has on the team. And usually there is some upside, because if you remember what I was mentioning before about humans using this process of negativity to keep ourselves alive. We're looking out for danger all over the place.

So if you can tap into that from an empathetic standpoint, it'll give you an entry into the conversation that the other person won't disagree with. Then step four, present the impact. So I encouraged Sarah to bring up the specific instances that she noted in step one, when she focuses on how Jeff's comments have affected her and the team, she's leaning into the organizational impact. For example, She might say something like last week, on Tuesday, we got some pretty big kudos from the C suite, and you were quick to point out that our work was far from perfect, and that we were 3% over budget, and that we're seeing lots of upcoming deadlines that we might miss, I've noticed that when we receive positive feedback like that, and you point out the potential issues right away, it can sometimes dampen the team's morale. We all want to do our best work, and balancing constructive criticism with positive reinforcement can really keep us all motivated, so something like that, whatever Sarah's natural version of that is.

And then step five is really suggesting solutions. Sarah can move then to suggesting how they might do things differently. She might propose a more balanced approach to feedback, such as starting team meetings with a positive update before addressing challenges. What do you think about starting our project updates with a quick round of positive news before we dive into the potential issues? She might say, I think it would help everyone's spirits stay up while we address the important concerns too. So once she's suggested some ideas, now it's time to open up the dialog or ideas.

So Step six is to open the conversation to the other person. So Sarah can ask Jeff to share his thoughts and feelings. She should make it clear that she's interested in finding a way for them to both work together. She might say something like, I'd love to hear your perspective on this. How do you feel about balancing the positives and the challenges that we face? Is there something that we could do differently that works for you as well?

And then finally, Step seven, agree on some next steps. So I suggest again, that they together brainstorm a few actionable steps that they can implement to improve the communication and the overall team atmosphere, whatever those specific things are, they should also set a time to check in with each other, not just once, but regularly, to see how this new approach is working. So those are the seven steps.

First, reflect and plan before you go into that conversation. Two, choose the right time and place. Three, start with empathy. Four, present and focus on that organizational impact. Five, suggest some solutions. Six, open the dialog to the other person, and seven agree on those next steps and set something in motion to follow up. And finally, as I told Sarah, if the negativity becomes overwhelming, don't hesitate to seek support, whether it's a trusted colleague, maybe somebody who's not on the same team, just to give some additional distance and to not perpetuate that throughout the team even further, or whether it is your Human Resources business partner, or maybe even a therapist or a coach, somebody entirely outside of your workplace altogether, talking things out can provide new perspectives and solutions, and if nothing else, it can give you some support to move through that situation, and again, if all else fails, the more you can segment the amount of time that you have to spend with that person and prepare yourself for it mentally before you go into those situations, the better off that you're going to be.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, negativity bias is a natural part of the human experience, but its impact on the workplace can be profound, if left unchecked by understanding this bias and implementing the strategies that we've talked about here to counteract it, we can transform our work environment into spaces of positivity and collaboration and higher levels of productivity.

Remember fostering a positive workplace starts with small, consistent actions, whether you're dealing with a negative co worker or a negative manager, or difficult employees or difficult clients, simply trying to maintain your own positivity, whether you're dealing with a negative coworker or manager or clients, or simply just try maintain your own positivity and move away from negativity bias yourself. The tips we've discussed today can help you navigate the challenges and create a more uplifting work environment for everyone.

Remember the future of work is not only about technology, it's about the values we uphold, the communities we build and the sustainable growth we all strive for. We need to keep exploring, keep innovating and keep envisioning the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead as always, stay curious, stay informed and stay ahead of the curve.

Tune in next Monday for another insightful exploration of the trends shaping our professional world. If you enjoy this content and you're watching on YouTube, make sure you hit the subscribe button and knock that little bell so that you get notified every time there's a new episode out, and so that you don't miss a thing.

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