Are we hardwired to be positive or negative, particularly during difficult times? That’s a question that has been asked by many researchers and it has an impact on our beliefs about motivation and behavior. Research findings on this issue have significant implications for leaders and workplace culture.

The capacity to emphasize the negative rather than the positive has probably been an evolutionary phenomenon. From our earliest beginnings, being aware of and avoiding danger has been a critical survival skill.

The concept of negativity bias is not new. Early research has led to theories such as The Prospect Theory, which evaluates the way people make choices when there is a known risk. So negativity bias and the Prospect Theory advances the idea that people are more likely to choose things based on their need to avoid negative experiences, rather than their desire to get positive experiences. This phenomena has been examined by researchers such as Roy F. Baumister, Ellen Tratslavsky, Kathleen Vohs, and Catrin Finkenauer. These psychologists concluded negative experiences or the fear of them has a greater impact on people than positive experiences.

Paul Rozin and Edward Royzman showed in their research that the negative perspective is more contagious than the positive perspective. A study by John Cacioppo and his colleagues showed that our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news. Other researchers analyzed language to study negativity bias. For example, there are more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent) in the English dictionary.

In our brains, there are two different systems for negative and positive stimuli. The amygdala uses approximately two thirds of its neurons to detect negative experiences, and once the brain starts looking for bad news, it is stored into long-term memory quickly. Positive experiences have to be held in our awareness for more than 12 seconds in order for the transfer from short-term to long-term memory.  Rick Hanson describes it in this way: “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.”

A recent study by Jason Moser and his colleagues at Michigan State University, and published in The Journal of Abnormal Psychology have found brain markers that distinguish negative thinkers from positive thinkers. Their research suggests that there are in fact positive and negative people in the world.  In their experiments they found people who tend to worry showed a paradoxical backfiring effect in their brains when asked to decrease their negative emotions, which Moser said, “suggests they have a really hard time putting a positive spin on difficult situations and actually make their negative emotions worse even when they are asked to think positively.”

Christopher Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University and co-author of The Man Who Lied To His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, argues that we tend to see people who say negative things as being smarter than those who are positive. Thus we are more likely to give greater weight to criticism than praise.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi contends that unless we are occupied with other thoughts, worrying is the brain's default position. This is why, he says, "we must constantly strive to escape such 'psychic entropy' by learning to control our consciousness and direct our attention to activities which provide 'flow' activities which give positive feedback and strengthen our sense of purpose and achievement." His views echoes those of Martin Seligman and Rick Hanson who both make the point that while negative emotion always has the ability to “trump” positive emotion, we have to learn how to keep negative emotion in check by amplifying positive emotions.

My particular interest in this research as an executive coach and leadership trainer is the application to leadership behaviors and workplace culture.

Here are some suggestions for what may make leadership strategies more effective in the workplace:

  • Don’t tell people who seem to be inclined to be negative to “think positively”, as that may actually make it worse for them; instead, the leader can ask them to think about the problem or issue in a different way using different strategies
  • Be conscious of the viral effect of negative people and how they can “infect” positive people, and take actions to minimize their effect
  • When positive events or interactions occur, the leader should demonstrate and encourage others to do so as well, savoring the positive experience for a longer period of time
  • As a leader, demonstrate and encourage others to be mindful of “triggers” that can stimulate negativity by reflecting on whether the negative situation has been exaggerated or blown out of proportion, and how it can be calmly managed
  • Avoiding over-analyzing or ruminating on past negative events; rather focus on what can be done in the present in a proactive manner
  • Leaders need to focus on the small wins and progress on a daily basis, and take time to celebrate those, rather than waiting for the end of a project or extended period of time before celebration; this also means providing regular and frequent positive reinforcement for successful work
  • If negative feedback or criticism is necessary, leaders should give it first, followed by positive comments or feedback, not the other way around as many leaders tend to do in organizations
  • Remember that it takes 5-10 positive events to counterbalance one negative event.

 Website: http://raywilliams.ca

Twitter: @raybwilliams

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