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May 2012
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Helping Managers Focus on the Positive

Posted by: Alex Linley

 

“My manager is always focusing on what I have done wrong, rather than helping me see what I can do to be better. Why is he always stuck on the negative?”

 

This is a question I have heard many times throughout my career. It is also a question I have posed to many conference audiences and organisational groups with whom I have worked. So what’s the answer?

 

First, let’s dispel some myths. We don’t focus on the negative because we are pessimists, because we work in HR, because we are Scottish, or because of the so-called British “stiff upper lip” (these are all suggestions that have been put to me by people from each of these groups). Neither is it because of the negativity of the organisational culture in which we might think we work, nor because of the apparent negativity of the news media that surround us.

 

No, the truth is that we can find ourselves – and other people – stuck on the negative because we’re human.

 

As human beings, we have evolved to pay attention to what’s wrong, to what isn’t working, to what’s broken. This “negativity bias” permeates how we think and what we pay attention to – and with good reason, for if we didn’t, we would be dead. Paying attention to the negative, to threat, to pain, has been a key part of our evolution as a species, something that we therefore carry with us still today, hard-coded into our DNA.

 

But just because we have evolved to have this negativity bias, that doesn’t mean that we have to allow it to dominate our lives.

 

Parminder Basran, who I interviewed when writing Average to A+, gives hope to us all, sharing his experience of how he learned to overcome this negativity bias:

 

Is it in everybody’s make up to look at the negative side in people? You really have to train yourself as a leader and a manager to work in this [more positive] way…A lot more often now, I catch myself slipping into focusing on the negative, on what someone hasn’t done well. But at least I have caught myself and done something about it – it bothers me to think what things would be like if I didn’t catch myself, and I guess that is a challenge that all of us will have to overcome.”

 

Parminder’s secret is that he learned how to use his negativity bias like a volume control – turning it up when he needed to, but also recognising that he could turn it right down low when he didn’t.

 

Managers are human beings, subject to the same negativity bias we all are. When we learn to treat our negativity bias like a volume control, we put ourselves back in control, rather than being at the mercy of our evolution.

 

There is a time and a place for focusing on the negative – but it certainly isn’t constant or continuous. For example, we know that human beings flourish with a 3:1 ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions, and that high performing business teams take this further, with 6:1 positive interactions to negative interactions.

 

Clearly, success comes to people who have learned to dial up and down the negativity, rather than having it as their default setting.

 

What experiences have you had in your own career and life with the negativity bias? Share your experiences on The Capp Blog using the Comment section below.

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