3 ways to handle negative bias

Mentoring conversations conjure up all kinds of thoughts, feelings and inevitably biases – none more than ‘negative bias’.

Pessimism, the tendency to see the emptiness of a situation, is so pervasive in our culture it seems to be an accepted habit to primarily look at the doom and gloom. Even when the sum of the entire situation is positive, a person with a negative bias will skew toward an overall negative interpretation of events. (Wikipedia: negative bias)

For a person seeking to make changes to improve their situation, whether that be education, work, home life etc., a negative bias will play out as an unwillingness to change for fear that they will end up worse off than where they are.

In mentoring sessions, negative bias becomes obvious at the very start of the conversation. For example, an opening question may be, ‘how have things been going since we last caught up?”. If this is followed by an overall negative summary, then it is time to look a bit closer.

  1. Convert to positive bias – If an individual is demonstrating negative bias, then a renewed approach may be needed. Instead of asking open questions, reframe your queries with a positive tone. When I worked with a team that was wrestling with a set of very difficult issues, we started a new positive habit of opening the sessions by answering ‘What is working well right now?’. Sometimes, this question would be met with silence. This had a benefit, because letting people struggle a little to find the positive helps to subtly highlight the negative bias of the group. Inevitably, the positives were uncovered but I had to be prepared to let the silence do it’s job before we could really start to shift the mindset.
  2. Reinforce the smallest of shifts – We know that change does not happen overnight, so it is important to reinforce even the smallest of shifts. If a mentee opens a session with a highlights that include some positive aspects, then call it out. Recently, I had a mentee make an important shift in recognising during a discussion about a particularly challenging leader. While she started with a few negative aspects, she quickly moved her attention to what could be changed rather than her old pattern of getting stuck in the negative rut. This was a small but important shift which allowed her to move forward with ideas for improvement.
  3. Recognise when negative bias helps – Understanding our biases means we can be more self-aware of how we are interpreting the world around us.  It is OK to call out a bias, but it is not OK to let our biases rule our thinking and decision-making. Reviewing risk-reward outcomes, disaster recovery worst case scenarios etc. are critical to thinking through business strategy and planning.

Unchecked, negative bias can result in stalemate: the person is unhappy where they are, but they are fearful of being even more unhappy if they change. However, learning to use it to help, and control when it is hindering performance means that a person is making up their own mind about how to view the world and how to make decisions.

That’s empowerment.



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