Working From Home: Neutralizing Negativity Bias - Part 2 of 3

Dave Cole
April 2, 2020

As we close out another week of many businesses working from home, employees are settling into a new rhythm. By now you hopefully have some sort of routine in place and a designated work area. But how are you feeling? During this time of uncertainty and with the 24/7 news cycle it’s normal to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and have a general feeling of malaise. That combined with social distancing and figuring out your new normal is a recipe for feeling run down. I previously discussed how I believe there are three big topics that determine team and personal success when working from home: getting communication right, understanding and neutralizing negativity bias, and structuring your day. If you missed part one on getting communication right, check it out here.

Now let’s talk about negativity bias - an internal and external factor that we, the socially-distanced, are all coping with.

Understanding and Neutralizing Negativity Bias

As humans, we all have the tendency to exaggerate the negative and downplay the positive. Some may be better suppressing it than others, but it’s not a personal thing, it’s a human thing. Everyone has the same affliction. If you are unfamiliar with it, this phenomenon is well documented as “the ​negativity bias.” As explained in Very Well Mind, our tendency to pay more attention to bad things and overlook good things is likely a result of evolution. Earlier in human history, paying attention to bad, dangerous, and negative threats in the world was literally a matter of life and death. Those who were more attuned to danger and who paid more attention to the bad things around them were more likely to survive. Overweighting the negative was a useful evolutionary tool that kept us alive in primitive times. Today, it can harm our relationships:

Research has shown that negative bias can have a wide variety of effects on how people think, respond, and feel. Some of the everyday areas where you might feel the results of this bias include in your relationships, decision-making, and the way you perceive people. The negativity bias can have a profound effect on your relationships. The bias might lead people to expect the worst in others, particularly in close relationships where people have known each other for a long time. So why does this matter for remote work? When you’re not face-to-face in an office, you’re relegated to lower fidelity conversations (e.g., Slack versus a watercooler conversation). This leaves you interpreting communications much more than have to you do in person. In a live conversation, you have tone of voice, posture, gestures, facial expressions, and content as inputs that allow you to make quality decisions about communication intent with little effort. With remote work, the other person’s tone is a lot less obvious and there’s much more “white space,” so to speak. With negativity bias, instead of giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, your natural instinct is to assume the worst. You’ll recall similar painful incidents in the past rather than that time the same person helped you with work, bought you a coffee, or carried your bag when you were overloaded with luggage.

To illustrate negativity bias, consider this scenario:

In looking at performance metrics, you observe that “Bob didn’t get it done this sprint.” When you see him at work each day and interact with him directly, it’s easier to give him the benefit of the doubt on extenuating circumstances. With distance, however, this can quickly turn into “Bob didn’t get it done this sprint because he’s a lazy idiot who only cares about himself.” Simply stated, the extra “white space” you have when working remote is far too easy to fill with negativity.

In a startup this can matter even more since you’re probably already stressed and more likely on edge than in other settings. You have stress from taking on problems with unknown solutions, the lack of infrastructure and immature processes, concerns about the company’s long-term prospects, or perhaps even vicarious stress from a partner’s concerns about the business. So, why does this especially matter when you’re stress-triggered by a global pandemic? If you’re already in stress mode with an engaged limbic system, you are more likely to react based on your gut instincts, which are already biased towards negativity.

Think of it this way, in this crude but perhaps representative “reaction math”:

Normal Startup Reaction
Workplace incident * Startup Stress * Negativity Bias = Reaction

Pandemic Startup Reaction
Workplace incident * Startup Stress * Negativity Bias = Reaction * Homeschooling Children * Quarantine Stress * Apocalyptic Musings * Concern for Elders = OMG Reaction

So now that moment of “Bob didn’t get it done this sprint because he’s a lazy idiot who only cares about himself” turns quickly into “Bob selfishly didn’t make his sprint commitment and I had to cover for him which made me late for teaching Susie long division which pissed off my partner who was trying to take care of her mother and oh God if this keeps happening the whole company is probably screwed.”

So what can be done to offset negativity bias?

  1. Be clear about tone
    State your intent -- assume it won’t be clear otherwise. Leave less whitespace by exaggerating the positive and use emojis to clarify statements or whatever suits you.
  2. Celebrate and savor the good moments
    Let them burn into your brain. Give yourself, others, and the whole team credit. Build a reservoir of positive thoughts to draw from.
  3. Give the benefit of the doubt
    Our own self narrative is more often the culprit rather than the other person – as the old saying goes, “it’s not you, it’s me.” So try to refrain from premature judgement. If you don’t start by being kind to yourself, it’s much harder to be nice to others. Tara Brach's excellent teachings are a great place to start if this is as unnatural for you as it was for me.
  4. Breathe
    Count to 10 deep breaths, use the Apple Breathe feature for a couple minutes or whatever works for you. It will reduce the impact of stress-based reactions and diminish the exaggerated responses that come so easy today given the mountain of extra stress we are all feeling.

Look out for part three soon, where I’ll talk about structuring your day.

Don't miss a post

Get stories about data and cloud security, straight to your inbox.