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Negativity Bias, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
“Negativity bias is a cognitive bias that explains why negative events or feelings typically have a more significant impact on our psychological state than positive events or feelings, even when they are of equal proportion.”
Said another way - we’re shaped mostly by the bad stuff that happens to us.
In my experience, negativity bias can be one of the fatal flaws of leaders. Read on for how it happens and how to solve it.
Many leaders were forged in fire - they learned their most valuable leadership lessons from really tough times they had to lead through. This usually leaves good leaders with two takeaways:
I can lead through anything. I just walked on glass and chewed rocks for 18 months, the trials of normal workplaces don’t phase me.
I want to avoid the specific thing that got all messed up in that period. Never again.
On the second point - let’s explore it further.
That traumatic event that made a leader strong was some specific thing that they’ll want to avoid forever. Examples:
Centralized process slowed development to a halt (this leader shudders at the idea of any centralized process)
Over-reliance on third party services lead to a catastrophic downtime (this leader wants everything in-house moving forward)
This is all well and good until things change. And if you lead long enough, things will change.
When negativity bias couples with changing needs, leaders can implode. For example, there are times when:
You absolutely need a centralized process
You absolutely need to be a reliant on third parties
However, when one of these scorned leaders encounters this, their negativity bias SCREAMS.
For a fun example that I’m in no way an expert in (though I have watched The Patriot about 30 times) - this is like when the British Army refused to stop marching in fields while militia were picking them apart.
“Sir, I think we should not stand in a field any more on account of these ambushes!”
“Hogwash! We’ve stood like this my whole career and devoured the meek with our might. It must be something else, like that corn pudding we ate last night!”
“Sir, I really think we ought to not stand in lines like this.”
“Baloney good sir! The only battles I’ve ever lost were from broken lines. You think I’d break them willingly?!”
And that’s how you lose America..etc.
At its core, this situation is about understanding when to change. Beyond negativity bias, there’s a whole suite of other stuff that can make the “time to change” signal hard to figure out:
Big changes in approach aren’t common. It isn’t something like deploying code where you get dozens to thousands of reps per year. It’s something like hiring a CTO, or cofounder conflict, where the law of large numbers won’t set you straight.
The change you need to make isn’t universally followed. Other companies seem to be doing the path you’re already taking, and survive for at least a while - even if they’re less successful.
Ego plays a factor. A leader may have said “third party software is the devil” a million times, and built a culture around it, and now they need to change that.
Politics plays a factor. Some companies have people that will weaponize change against you.
Inertia plays a factor. Often the hardest decision aren’t the hardest to figure out the right answer, they’re just the hardest to get the guts to follow through on.
So, will all this working against you as a leader, it’s important to really be looking for the signs that things need to change. These include:
A lot of your best people are telling you you’re wrong on this. Polite people start becoming vocal. Vocal people start people extremely vocal. Extremely vocal people start to become burnt out.
The problem doesn’t go away. If after 2-4 months things aren’t cooling down, you’ll start to sense this is something that won’t disappear. If things are building up pressure at 6 months, that’s a very bad sign.
In the face of this signal you can literally write down factors to understand how much they’re playing a role in the decision:
Is my former negative experience causing me to bias too far against the right action?
Do I know what the right answer is but don’t want to deal with executing on it?
Am I worried that this will incur reputational risk given how much I’ve previously advocated for the opposite?
There can be amazing power in actually writing these answers down and making explicit what’s lingering below the surface. If your answer to the above questions is yes, you need to act; just try something different and run an experiment…
Let one group fight militia in the woods. Try a lightweight centralized process. Use a single new third party service. If your original path was right, shout “Huzzah!” and move on. If it looks like things are working better in the new way, keep trying it, and keep pushing to breakdown the biases that are working against you.
If you have a long enough career you’re almost certainly going to need to reconsider something you had held as a deep, durable truth. Of all the things that will work against you getting to the right outcome, negativity bias is near the top of the list.
Trauma makes leaders, but trauma keeps leaders from changing when the time is right. The first step to being able to overcome that bias is to acknowledge it. The second is to act against it.