Have you ever noticed that you can be having a great day, the sun shining, everything going well, you’re ticking off the to-do list, and then you get a small piece of negative feedback from a colleague, a client, or perhaps a member of the public, and it ruins your day?
Despite having received plenty of positive, and even neutral feedback, through your day, you give a lot of attention to this one comment which is equally exhausting and depressing. Your mind turns over the words as you try to understand what was behind the comment, what you can learn, and how you can do better next time.
In researching this to understand why I feel this way at times, I found out that I’m not the only one out there emphasising the small parts of negativity we receive in business and life.
No matter who you are, how senior, or how experienced you are, we all tend to focus on that one negative comment.
As humans, we give way more attention to negative experiences and less attention to positive or neutral experiences. This is what scientists call our ‘negativity bias’ – it’s an instinct that originated in the stone age to protect us from predators and other threats in our environment.
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, entitled ‘How hardwired is human behaviour?’ Nigel Nicholson says, “Life on the Savannah Plain was short and very fragile. Natural life-threatening hazards abounded. As weak, hairless bipeds, human beings’ strength lay in their minds. The thoughts and emotions that best served them were programmed into their psyches and continue to drive many aspects of human behaviour today.”
Chief among these psyches is emotion. In an uncertain world, people who survived had a keen emotion radar that was attuned to the wild including sensing predators and natural disasters. We needed to trust our instincts above all else.
“So for human beings, no less than any other animal, emotions are the first screen to all information received,” explains Nigel.
In other words, something very positive will generally have less of an impact on a person’s behaviour and cognition than something equally emotional but negative.
As a result, our brains are hardwired to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. This style of thinking can hold us back in the workplace because it can play into our evaluations, attention, memory, decision-making and risk considerations.
How can we turn our attention to the positive?
If this thought pattern is hardwired, how can we give more attention to our successes and less attention to our setbacks? There are three things that you can do to interrupt the brain’s emotional processing bias:
1. Label it for what it is. Acknowledge that your thoughts are simply your brain’s negativity bias in action. (Your business isn’t going to fall over because you received a negative comment from someone you barely know on your LinkedIn post.)
2. Distract yourself. What you allow your mind to focus on, changes your brain. Do something positive or productive, for example, help someone, exercise, get up from your desk or read a book.
3. Flood your mind with a positive memory for 30 seconds. This could be reflecting on your weekend, on something you’re grateful for, or on something that you’re proud of.
This doesn’t mean that the negative comment won’t be hurtful, but it will sting a little less and help you to move on faster.
This is an excerpt from my keynote speech for International Women’s Day 2020 on ‘Finding your power’ that I will be presenting at various events this week. For more information on this topic, or to enquire about speaking or consulting for your venue, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.