Do you struggle to let go of negativity? When you receive not-so-positive feedback, how do you feel? Are you the type of person to shrug it off and let it go, or do you end up having a bad day as a result? If you’re like most people, you probably gravitate towards the latter. Why is it so difficult to let go of criticism and focus on positivity instead?
A couple of weeks ago, I had my usual client meeting. It started with a progress report where the client gave my team and me some positive feedback, which made me smile. But towards the end of the call, the client gave one last bit of feedback: that I needed to improve the structure of my reports, because they found the reports confusing. I thanked them for the feedback, but inside, I was irritated. I could not believe it! Even my boss couldn’t find anything wrong with my reports, so what did they want me to change?
As a result, I was distracted and irritable for the rest of the day. The reports that usually took me an hour at most to write, took three. I couldn’t concentrate on my tasks. Do you know how long it took me to calm down and get over that one bit of negative feedback, even though I actually received more feedback that was positive? 2 days. Sound familiar?
According to science, there is a reason why we act like this. It is all caused by what scientists call “negativity bias.”
Negativity bias refers to our “propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” Simply stated, it means that negative events weigh more on us than positive events of the same intensity. It’s unnatural for us to let go of negativity!
This phenomenon was studied by John Cacioppo, Ph.D. at Ohio State University. In the study, he showed pictures that elicited positive, negative, or neutral feelings while participants were connected to a machine that measured the brain’s electrical activity. The brain, as expected, generated more electrical activity in response to stimuli that were perceived as negative. This study helped demonstrate that we are more influenced by negative than positive information.
Impact in the working world
Evolution has wired our brain in this manner to keep us safe from threats that could be fatal out in the wilderness. However, in the working world or in our everyday life, this might actually be detrimental to us.
As what happened to me a few weeks ago, negativity bias slowed down my progress at work, and I became less effective in my job. If we choose to let our bad experiences overshadow what is good, we decrease our engagement and productivity.
So how do we overcome negativity bias if it’s our natural tendency?
Here are a few tips that can help us overcome negativity bias at work (and in our daily lives):
High ratio of positive to negative comments
Going back to Dr. Cacciopo’s study, he stated that there is a specific ratio of positivity to negativity that makes life satisfying to married people or anyone in general. He found that there should be five times more positive moments between people than negative moments.
This is also noted in the study of Dr. Barrie Hopson. This doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any negative feedback; it just means that there should be more positive comments than negative ones. These don’t have to be major moments of recognition; frequent, small positive experiences can help tip the scales toward happiness more than grand-yet-rare moments do.
While the exact ratio of positive to negative comments has been debated, it’s clear that we need several positive comments to outweigh each negative comment. So the next time you talk to your spouse or co-worker, see how many genuine positive comments you can deliver!
Start your day with gratitude
In a TEDx talk, Alison Ledgerwood emphasized that we have to rewire our brains to let go of negative thoughts. It takes significant effort, but we can actually train our minds to help see the upside rather than the downside of things.
One strategy is to write for a few minutes each day about things we’re grateful for. Doing this activity consistently can help boost our happiness and minimize the effect of the negativity bias.
This tip is also noted in Scott’s Crabtree’s e-book, “This Is Your Brain on Gratitude.” This e-book provides “three straightforward, science-based, and actionable strategies for rewiring your brain to be more grateful” – and therefore happier and more productive, too. This e-book is free, so feel free to download it anytime!
Another science-based suggestion is to savor the good things at work and in life. Our negativity bias means that we tend to let good things go quickly, and turn our attention to the negative. But we can overcome our negativity bias to truly appreciate the good people, events, and even the good food we get at work. For more on savoring, please see this video.
It isn’t easy to be positive in a world where negativity abounds. But I realized that when I changed how I viewed the feedback given to me as a challenge instead of a reprimand, it actually helped me perform better at work.
I felt grateful for the client’s feedback and made a simple change to my report. As a result, the client acknowledged the improvement and is now more responsive towards my team. Sure, I may still be overcome with negativity bias in the future – but by applying science-based tools, I can help make the experience less frequent or intense.
What’s worked for you to let go of negativity? What do you plan to do to overcome your negativity bias? Please share with us through your comments!