“I plan to live an unhealthy lifestyle and pass away in my cubicle, preferably on a Monday.” Dilbert
“There was a wicked messenger, from Eli he did come,
With a mind that multiplied the smallest matter.
When questioned who had sent for him, he answered with his thumb,
For his tongue it could not speak but only blabber.”
“The Wicked Messenger,” Bob Dylan
“Beautiful day, huh? Well, we’ll pay for this!! Next week is going to be awful; you just wait and see!”
Brian and Donna’s former neighbor, Lizzie
Have you heard about negativity bias? Yes, it is a psychological concept, but it’s a very helpful psychological construct in that it accurately describes an easily observed (and scientifically verifiable) phenomenon:
Negativity is an attention magnet and, as a result, bad news sells more papers than good news. Successful novels and movies are full of negative events and bad people doing bad things. When asked to recall highly emotional events, most of us are apt to describe negative emotional events, not positive ones.
Before I describe some examples of negativity bias in organizations, I want to promise that NEXT WEEK I’ll share some helpful ways to counter negativity with positivity in your organization.
If I talk about churches too much for your taste, bear with me; I’ve spent most of my life immersed in churches and church leadership. But the behaviors and attitudes and solutions I’m describing apply to many kinds of human organizations.
Here are some examples of negativity bias showing its face in our organizations:
(1) Bad news travels faster than good news. Wouldn’t it be nice if good gossip and positive rumors flowed through organizations as fast as bad gossip and negative rumors?
(2) People are bent toward cynicism and sarcasm toward their leaders. Instead of giving the benefit of the doubt, we are more apt to doubt the benefit, to assume the worst.
This isn’t the format for a deep dive into the Bible’s depiction of human nature (Christian anthropology) but a few words on this subject should be helpful and thought provoking.
The Bible depicts the human heart in its natural condition (yes, before age 3) as “…deceitful above all things and desperately wicked” Jeremiah 17:9. According to the Christian Bible (check out Romans 3 for a summary), human beings aren’t drawn to God and the good; they are drawn toward darkness and evil and repulsed by the holiness that exposes them (John 3:19).
If that sounds heavy and negative (there’s that word again), it assumes the even more basic Biblical teaching that all humans have been made in the image (Genesis 2 & 3) of a good and holy and profoundly positive God. The Christian gospel (good news) is an incredibly positive message of hope and redemption and transformation into profoundly positive people.
Nevertheless: let’s just say that negativity bias makes perfect sense to those who accept what the Scriptures say about the human heart, which is one of the reasons why I stand in awe of the Bible’s insight.
(3) We tend to “fill in the blanks” left by poor communication with negative possibilities. If we don’t know our leaders’ motives for their new proposal, we assume the worst. If our church leaders don’t make the results of the consultant’s assessment publicly known, if they file the report away in a drawer and say nothing, most folks will assume that the report was profoundly negative.
(4) We tend to assume there are insidious motives behind studies of controversial subjects.
The leaders say: “Since this is a hot-button issue in our organization these days, we’re going to study it thoroughly and come up with a position paper.”
The hearers hear: “We’re going to compromise on this important issue, so we’ll cover our tracks by conducting a supposedly an open-minded investigation.”
(5) Faith-filled leaders always have an uphill battle to convince followers that things really can be better. If “around here” statements reflect an organization’s culture and values, it’s ominous that “around here” statements are almost always negative. Before positive change can happen, leaders must face their group’s “around here” culture honestly.
But now I’m starting to sound positive, which is next week’s subject. Let’s just say that negativity bias doesn’t have to rule the day. “Bad attitudes” (that’s the term we used to use) can be replaced with positive attitudes. It won’t “just happen” though, it will have to be part of an intentional, campaign of positivity. That’s next week.