September 19, 2022

How to overcome negativity bias in the workplace

Being on the receiving end of a negative comment from a co-worker stings acutely even when there’s been plenty of positive feedback in the past. This is negativity bias. 

You may have experienced it when given a piece of constructive feedback on a performance review that completely overshadowed the positive. Or when your day was progressing well until the moment a stressed-out colleague was short with you, causing you to spiral into questioning your entire relationship with them. Maybe you were cut off in traffic on your commute to the office, and you found it hard to focus on your project all morning. 

The human brain is wired to give more weight to negative thoughts, emotions or experiences than positive ones. As explained by neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones. The result is that when we experience a negative event, it has a deeper emotional impact than a similar positive one. While this kept us safe in early history by alerting us to danger, it’s not fit for the modern workplace. Negativity bias can steal our attention and get in the way of productivity, hinder our relationships with others, and impact our decision-making. 

The good news? We can train our brains to flip the script. 

Step one is to recognize negativity bias within yourself. Like with all biases, you can’t change something you’re not aware of. Next time you find yourself fuming about something that happened at work, pay attention. Pause what you’re doing, take a few deep breaths, and observe the thoughts coming up in real time without judging yourself for them. In doing so, you can create space from these thoughts instead of being caught up in them. Is there a real threat, or a perceived one? Separating yourself from negative thoughts empowers you to replace them with more objective or positive ones. Best practice is to develop the habit of checking in with yourself throughout the day. You’ll start to observe patterns in your thought processes and reactions to stressors. 

Once you’ve gained insight into what makes your negativity bias tick, it’s easier to challenge it. Here are some mindfulness-based techniques you can try to counter your negativity bias by rewiring your brain to notice the positive. 

Celebrate small wins. Experts claim a 3:1 ratio for mitigating negativity bias—it takes three positive thoughts, feelings, or experiences to offset a negative one. By actively looking out for and acknowledging the good in your life, you build up a mental positivity bank that you can draw from to challenge this inherent imbalance of negativity bias. Appreciating a supportive smile from a co-worker, taking note of a kind review from a customer, or simply celebrating crossing the first item off your to-do list are just a few examples of small ways you can redirect your brain to see the positive and start building new patterns. A gratitude practice is a great habit to develop for deliberately focusing your attention on positivity. 

Choose self-love. Introduce the negative voice in your head to the compassion, kindness, and gentleness you extend to your closest friends. If your inner critic says “You’ve really screwed this up,” see how it feels to respond with “You did the best you could with the information you had at the time.” It may initially feel more natural to show compassion to others than to develop a loving relationship with yourself, but with practice self-kindness and positive self-talk go a long way towards building a positive outlook. 

Move your body. The mind and the body are intimately connected. Releasing physical tension is an excellent way to relieve mental tension. When you find yourself stuck in a negative rut, try some gentle movement to interrupt the negative thinking pattern. Go for a walk, take a stretch break, or engage in a mindful movement practice to boost your mood. Movement is meditation in motion—it’s one of the most accessible ways that you can ground your body to settle your mind. 

Mindfulness practice teaches us to connect to the present moment experience, rather than living in the omnipresence of mental chatter. It’s an effective tool for letting go of the negative thoughts we are predisposed to and challenging our automatic reactions. Find guided mindfulness practices for cultivating positivity with eM Life’s 7 Days of Thriving with Positivity on-demand program. 

Written by Annie Slaby