Ever notice a tendency to focus more on what’s wrong than what’s right? To notice what people do wrong more than what they do well? Or to offer criticism or advice more than positive appreciation?
Well, you are not alone: Our brains are hardwired for a negativity bias. That means that negative experiences and information grab more of our attention, are more memorable and their effects last longer than positive experiences. At the end of the day, it’s the negative experiences that we remember more rather than the positive ones.
The negativity bias not only affects how we feel, it also impacts work culture and patient care. Let’s first look at its implications on the workplace.
If people are more strongly impacted by the negative than the positive AND if we tend to notice the negative more, then people are probably getting more criticism or “helpful” advice (which, when unsolicited, is perceived as criticism) than they are appreciation or positive acknowledgments.
This is what I consider low-hanging fruit for improving interactions at work. We know that it takes about eight or nine positives to counteract the negativity bias. By giving employees specific and genuine recognition for a job well done, we can shift the workplace culture to one of greater collaboration and appreciation.
And best of all, it’s easy and free. Tell people what specific behaviors they are doing or have done that made a positive impact. Recognition or appreciation is rewarding to the brain. What’s more, anything that is rewarding tends to be repeated. Not only does positive feedback make people feel good, it reinforces behaviors that we want to be reinforced, a win-win.
An additional benefit of mitigating the negativity bias is that when people feel appreciated by others, they are more likely to want to collaborate and contribute. Their morale and engagement at work improves as well, making them more productive and effective.
Now let’s shift our focus to how the negativity bias impacts patient care. The negativity bias is alive and well in medicine. It starts in medical school where students are frequently exposed to teaching methods that create feelings of shame, ineptitude and incompetency. Early on in their careers, physicians learn both the importance of preventing and avoiding errors as well as the need for perfection.