Overcoming Our Negativity Bias

The reason negativity exists in the workplace is because humans work there. Tens of thousands of years of evolution haven’t caught up with the comparatively short time we’ve been dealing with annoyances in the workplace as opposed to threats that could kill us. Luckily, our brains are malleable. We can create new neural pathways so our default responses don’t ruin potentially important relationships.

Our Caveman Genetics

Think back, if you will, to the Neanderthal days. Imagine you and your tribe are hanging out by the campfire when a member of a neighboring tribe comes over and starts nosing around. Those with a negativity bias quietly reach for their clubs while a welcoming young tribal member invites the stranger to join in. When the stranger bonks the welcomer on the head and runs off with his mate, the welcomer’s genes do not make it into future generations.

We are the descendants of the people who reached for their clubs.

Yay for Neuroplasticity

We are programmed to handle threats via our fight-or-flight response, whether those threats come from a club-wielding competitor or an out-of-line employee. The good news is that we can shift our negativity bias so it doesn’t get in our way, allowing us to move to the trust-but-verify crowd or even the assume-good-intentions crowd. We can reroute neural pathways in our brains by intentionally responding in a calmer, more controlled manner.

But first, we have to recognize we’re getting triggered and wrench control away from the amygdala (also known as the lizard brain).

Recognizing the Fight-or-Flight Response

Here are some sure-fire ways to know you’re in the middle of a fight-or-flight response.

  1. Your heart is beating like a trip hammer.
  2. You feel like you could lift a small car.

What’s actually happening is that your brain is flooded with the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. Your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes fast and shallow. Your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, and you get tunnel vision. Your digestive tract shuts down as blood rushes to your extremities, and access to the logical part of your brain practically disappears. This is great if you need to fight or flee, not so great if you need to manage a delicate negotiation with someone who is driving you crazy.

Grounding to Regain Control

How do you calm down? You begin grounding. Take slow deep breaths. I recommend “square breathing,” also called tactical breathing. Imagine yourself breathing into the corners of a box. First, take a deep breath and imagine all the air going into the upper left corner of a box. Hold your breath for four seconds. Then exhale slowly for four seconds as you imagine moving to the upper-right corner. Hold for four seconds. Then use another four-second inhale to move to the lower-right corner. Hold for four seconds, and exhale slowly to get to the lower-left corner. By the time you make it around the box, your heart will start to slow down.

Next, feel your feet on the ground–all ten toes–and go through an inventory of each major muscle group, tensing and relaxing each one as you go. Finally, focus on the information you can gather through your senses: what do you smell, taste, feel, and see? By the time you’ve done this, your prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of your brain) has begun to win the wrestling match with the amygdala

Getting Curious

Once your prefrontal cortex is calling the shots again, you can start asking questions to address the annoying behavior of a colleague or client. Ask yourself, “Does this really have anything to do with me or is this a symptom of a deeper issue—personal or professional? Is this person trying to be helpful, albeit ineffectively, or is this a ploy for attention? Where is the common ground here?”

Once you refocus on helpful questions, it’s amazing how the annoying behavior can change, at least your perception of it. If you realize a person is acting out of fear or insecurity, for example, you can put them at ease to help them communicate more effectively. If you remember that this person is dealing with a personal issue, you may give them a little grace, understanding they are not behaving as they normally would.

It’s also important to remember that people’s irritating behaviors can sometimes be a double-edged sword. We have to take the good with the bad. Here is a great video to illustrate the point.

Pro Tip: Start Meetings with a Check-in

If you are in a leadership position and regularly hold meetings, you may want to consider starting every meeting with a two-minute check-in using the following prompt: Is there anything you’d like to share about what’s going on for you this week, personally or professionally? It is amazing what people will share and how valuable this information can be to team dynamics.

If you think your staff could benefit from a little professional development in this area, get in touch. I’m happy to present a short, entertaining talk on the subject.