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The Downside of Negativity Bias and Other Patterns

My 14-year-old son has started to use the phrase, “triggered” while we are watching a program on television. He is referring to an irrational response a character has due to a past event. Or sometimes, quite often actually, he directs this expression directly at me, his father, when I respond in a way he finds irrational.

This made me think about how past encounters with clients and other participants in a transaction or project may affect our current perceptions and behavior. When you stop to think about this statement, it may not be an “A-ha” moment, but one that definitely feels familiar. I raise this issue because, while it may be obvious, we find ourselves being blindsided by this phenomenon at times and it’s easy to see how it can play out with other relationships in business settings.

One of the clearest examples of a trigger that I can recall involves an intermediary who was providing information for several different transactions. The information for one of the transactions was incorrect at a material level, and analysis was done and deal points negotiated based upon that information. The deal continued and the players worked through the issue eventually, but the error caused unnecessary angst and aggravation.

Unfortunately for me, the pain from that deal bled into the other transactions involving this intermediary. I had worked with this group before and had good results and positive interactions, but after this incident, I found myself struggling to fully trust the intermediary or the information he provided. It is interesting to me how one significant negative experience can override several positive ones. As the other transactions progressed, I needed to remind myself that most of my experience with the intermediary was positive and the one negative experience was the anomaly (and upon investigation understandable in the context of that deal and the parties involved).

The phenomenon I observed and experienced is something I can see as a pattern in my life and in how other people often engage. Namely, a negativity bias — a human tendency to discount an entire history of positive experiences when a single experience falls too far short of expectations. For example, people often stop going to a restaurant they frequented simply because they had one bad meal or an incompetent server.

Negativity bias is not necessarily a bad thing. It is a defense mechanism that has helped us survive a harsh environment by avoiding toxic plants and dangerous situations. Imagine if the reverse were the case, if we had a positivity bias. What if a single positive experience with a vendor negated in our minds 19 negative experiences with that same vendor? Bad performance would go unchecked, and we would suffer the consequences.

However, the negativity bias, like all bias, is irrational, and it has the potential to do more harm than good. A better approach is to frame the negative experience in a way that gives it proper weight.  You need to address mistakes and negative behaviors, but you need to examine and judge them in context, and in many instances that context includes a collection of positives that serve as a counterweight. You should not entirely discount the positives.

This negativity bias I have observed is just one pattern, albeit a strong one. I have learned that it is helpful to stop and take a breath and a step back in various business relationships to see if the patterns that are present are rational and constructive. Sadly, I find that many negative patterns of interaction creep into relationships and begin to erode trust and confidence. Constant vigilance is required to keep from blindly characterizing a person or situation or acting on an irrational conclusion. I must constantly remind myself how valuable certain relationships have been and the many positive experiences I have had with certain individuals or groups.

The frustrating part of this realization is that it is not a one and done fix. It is necessary to keep this issue in the back of your head so it is a constant reminder to be aware of the ease of negative patterns and the importance of active interactions.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from Stephen Dietrich, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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About the Author: Stephen Dietrich is an attorney and author who has a passionate interest in the human side of business. His distinctive combination of legal and business knowledge, human insight, and dedication to clients makes him uniquely qualified to help corporate leaders and other C-level executives navigate high-value mergers and acquisitions, restructure transactions, and manage day-to-day operations. Through this blog, Stephen shares his extensive experience and unique personal and professional insights in the hope of stirring thought and dialogue that leads to ever deepening insights and understanding. For more information, please visit www.StephenDietrich.com.

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