The other night at 4:30 a.m. my young son Dylan (one month old), woke us up wanting a diaper change and a breast feed. Dutifully, I got up and changed his diaper and handed him to Catherine for a feeding. Normally, I would go back to bed at this point, but because it was a Friday, and I did not have to work the next day, I stayed up, burping Dylan mid-feeding, and giving him one more diaper change before putting him back down in his bassinet. “Thanks a lot for your help,” Catherine told me as I slipped back into bed, “it makes a big difference.”
She was showing me an expression of gratitude, but I could immediately feel my mind probing around, in search of any negativity that might be hidden in the message. “Is she making the point that I don’t always stay up with her and do the diaper changes?” “Does she resent the fact that she is home alone with the baby while I am at work all day?” This is the way our minds work. Even when offered something positive, we ignore the soft, fluffy middle, and look for the sharp edges. Where is the negativity? What needs to be fixed?
Psychology has identified this pull towards the dark side as a “negativity bias” (see here too) that we are all predisposed to. From an evolutionary perspective, human beings have learned that paying attention to the negative is more important than dwelling on the positive. Those whose gene pools encouraged them to ignore predators in favor of stopping to smell the roses have been killed off in favor of a more pragmatic genetic profile. There is value (sometimes critical value) in addressing the negative.
That being said, ruminating on the possible negative implications of Catherine’s statement would be wrong, and would place a strain on our relationship. But accepting it at face value with a cheery “you’re welcome!” would also be wrong, as it would not offer me the opportunity to learn from her how I can best love her. The best path is somewhere in the middle , and not always easy to find.
In my professional life, working in luxury hotels and resorts, we practice a relentless focus on the negative. We don’t waste too much time patting ourselves on the back for all of our happy customers. But when a customer is less than satisfied, we launch into action. We want to know what mistakes we made, how we can repair the damage done, and how can we learn from this to ensure that future guests have a better experience. With my employees, I would also focus on the negative side, asking them to bring to each team meeting a list of their biggest problems and what they are doing to fix it. I saw this as a positive (read “proactive”) way to address negative issues.
Stanford professor and “Work Matters” blogger, Bob Sutton is publishing later this year “Good Boss, Bad Boss,” indicating that dealing with the negative is an effective management strategy. Recognizing the negativity bias we all have, a good manager has to address the negative thoughts and challenges of his or her customers or employees because those will become most salient to them. But the negativity bias works both ways. While counteracting the saliency of the negative among employees and customers, the good manager also has to be aware of his own bias. His tendency to scan the horizon for problems may cause him to overlook the strengths, missing opportunities to learn from what is being done well, and failing to motivate his team by recognizing what they do right.
Negativity is important, but it is also draining. A manager in a luxury hotel will sometimes dread picking up his mail each morning. He knows he will not hear much from the hundreds of customers who had a wonderful experience with him. But there will be a letter (or maybe two) from the guest whose vacation was ruined by a rude bellman, or a note to see the Human Resources Director because one of his employees has filed a grievance (maybe they don’t like their uniform, or they are not happy with this weeks schedule.)
I have learned that there is also value in focusing on the positive side of the equation (“tilting toward the good” by Buddha’s Brain author Rick Hanson). Fixing problems is important and it yields results. But it can only take you so far. If we want to exceed our customers’ expectations, we have to not only learn what mistakes we have made, but when did we get it right? Who did we blow the socks off of, and how did we do it?
Now in meetings, I not only ask about the biggest challenges, I also ask about the biggest successes. If negativity is draining, positivity is energizing. I teach my employees, who regularly have to give a gift or a rebate to the most difficult negative clients, to occasionally do that for their favorite, most positive ones . . . just because. We are wired for negativity, but positivity has its place too (see “The Power of AND”). The best path is somewhere in the middle . . . and it’s not so easy to find.
References and recommended reading:
Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. New Harbinger Publications.
Schneider, S. L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: Meaning, knowledge, and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3): 250-263. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11315251
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Vintage.
Sutton, R. I. (2010). Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst. Business Plus.