The Negative Bias – Feeling the impact of criticism more powerfully than you feel the pleasure of praise

Have you ever heard someone ask if someone is a ‘glass half-full’ or a ‘glass half empty’ kind of person? These two turns of phrase often decipher if someone possesses a positive outlook on life or not, but that cannot fight the simple fact that humans are hardwired with a negative bias. This may sound pessimistic, however acknowledging this cognitive bias can singlehandedly help us to understand certain human behaviours. Do we need both leaders and employees to become self-aware in terms of the negative bias, so that steps can be taken to adopt a more positive outlook?

This psychological phenomenon describes our tendency to register negative stimuli more promptly than positive ones. To put it simply, we feel the bearing of criticism more strongly than we feel the pleasure of praise. Humans remember traumatic, negative experiences in better detail than positive ones and insults better than compliments. The negative bias goes further than just disproportionately registering negative stimuli; we also dwell on them more than we would positive stimuli. Within the world of business, it is a given that there may be more challenging days where something negative happens. If the team are ‘feeling blue’, it is highly likely a productivity slump will closely follow which makes communication, positive reinforcement, and compliments even more important as a means of keeping the morale of the team high. As soon as we acknowledge the cognitive bias, it becomes easier to be self-aware on when you may be hyper focusing on the negatives. A way to tackle this when say analysing your performance review at work, is to make a conscious effort to remind yourself of the achievements noted, instead of focusing on the comments that pointed out areas of improvement. The challenge here is that employers can say ten positive comments, but the one area of improvement mentioned will still be spotlighted in the mind of the employee. Similarly, throughout a working day as a leader, five tasks can be executed as desired, but if the sixth task doesn’t go to plan, it is likely this negative can hijack your brain and make you feel that the day was unsuccessful. If we can take a step back for a second, review and think about it, most tasks went to plan that day – we are simply focusing on the bad.

The mere fact it is a psychological phenomenon humans innately possess makes it complicated to tackle. Perhaps open dialect discussing the negative bias is a good place to start? By speaking about it regularly within a team as a human psychological bias we all encompass, we can guide others to become aware of when they become ‘hijacked’ by the negative. As employers, acknowledging this psychological phenomenon can be a great starting point at coaching your team to become self-aware. The negative bias will happen to both employees and leaders, so should the onus on recognising the bias be taken on by everyone in the team? We may not be able to fight the fact of the negative bias, but can we come together and communicate effectively, to promptly pull individuals out of a negative headspace?

Written by Izzy McHattie, EP Business in Hospitality