Good leaders know that inspiring people has a lot to do with focusing on the positive vs. the negative. Unfortunately, many of us are predisposed to focus on the negative and give it more worth or value than the positive. Alison Ledgerwood, a social psychologist does a great job in this TED talk showing us how that works.
Essentially, once we focus on the negative, we are much less likely to believe anything that proves otherwise. When asked how our day was we generally start with the negative. When asked how a project is going, we typically respond with what is not working. When asked how a team is performing, we often reply with explanations of how it’s not. Who knows why we do this? Preservation perhaps? The end result is that we are discounting that which is good and leaving opportunities for happiness out in the cold.
The great news about her research is that this is not a permanent condition. We can actually retrain ourselves to focus on the positive. First of all, don’t kid yourself that you are one of the few who already does focus on the positive. Her research shows that given a negative view of something, we stick with it even when shown positive proof that it’s actually a good thing. Just think about today’s polarizing political debates. We believe the negative about the “other” much more so than we believe any positive.
As leaders, this means that it’s up to you to reframe or state things in the positive, to begin with. Glass half full vs. glass half empty. If you lose a significant client, instead of saying we just lost 25% of our business, you would say we have 75% of our current clients confirmed and poised to grow. We can now take on additional clients because of the time freed up, etc. Then you need to repeat this over a period of several days or weeks and not waiver. Ledgerwood’s research showed that it takes practice to turn this negative thinking bias around. We literally have to retrain our brains. We need to practice and as leaders, we need to go first.
Take a look at your workplace and identify where this negative thinking bias is having the most impact. Start with understanding how the belief began and what is the reframe – the “we can” vs. the “we can’t.” What is the “glass half full” equivalent of the situation? Remember it’s true, it’s not that we’re making something up. We’re simply seeing it in a different light. In Ledgerwood’s example she showed that when told that a drug was 70% successful, people were willing to try it. When it was positioned as having a 30% failure rate, people were not. And the positive view was easily changed to negative when shown that viewpoint.
Understanding there is a human bias to believe the negative, and how quickly people go to and hold that view tightly gives us important insight into leadership communication. Focus on leading from the positive view – retrain your team to look at things newly through this positive lens and you might be surprised at the results.