When equal measures of good and bad events, regardless of size, are present in our lives the psychological effects of the bad events outweigh the good. Ian McGarry discusses how to look on the bright side of life to improve management skills.
Psychologists who have exhaustively researched the effects of bad events outweighing the good suggest that this phenomenon may be a largely unacknowledged principle or law of human psychology. Along with certain other mental shortcuts termed ‘heuristics’ – to speed up the process to find a satisfactory solution – psychological research is beginning to show that we have a ‘hidden’ psychology that unconsciously influences our thoughts and actions.
Thus it may be a significant reason why relating to and managing other people successfully is rarely an easy job.
Through the looking glass
Whether in relation to our personal or business lives, most of us like to think ourselves as fairly logical and rational individuals with the ability to think objectively. We tend to believe that others will also make logical, rational decisions within their own best interests. We rely on this view to navigate our way through a myriad of social and business relationships that demand cooperation and coordination. It is then often a surprise when people we work with or who are close to us react out of character in an emotional, irrational and hurtful manner that leaves us dumbfounded and wondering what we have done.
While we would expect the behaviour of people to be rational and consistent there is a weight of psychological research to suggest that this expectation may be ill-founded. In fact, empirical studies propose that we are subject to certain cognitive biases in how we perceive reality, and generally we are not consciously aware of the effects these predispositions have on our emotions, moods, decision-making and
When it comes to understanding and working with people’s psychology, managing others is probably one of the most demanding facets of our life at work. Individuals who aspire to be in people management positions are often promoted based on their technical or sales ability rather than their people skills. Rarely is there due recognition given to the difficulty they will ultimately face in managing people successfully. The evidence that managing people may not come naturally is reflected both in the degree to which the subject remains a consistently high training and development need in organisations and the sheer amount of conflicting literature devoted to the subject. A cursory search on Amazon, for example, reveals at least 10,167 books dedicated to illuminating us on management techniques alone, and that’s ignoring the plethora of academic journals.
There are multitudes of effects that can complicate relationships between people, especially at management-subordinate levels – ranging from work overload to serious financial pressures. The focus in this article is on the quality of the management-employee relationships that underpin all other work endeavours.
People can often survive tumultuous times and atypical business challenges if they can maintain positive and supportive relationships, which can often make the difference between success and failure. The problem is that our ability to establish and cement supportive relationships is rarely played
out on a level playing field.
Why bad is more powerful than good
In our daily lives we are bombarded with billions of pieces of information reaching us via all our available senses. Our brains cannot handle the influx of information we could potentially process. To cope with this our brain pulls a few neat tricks to organise our realities and stop us being overwhelmed. Some of these, termed ‘cognitive heuristics’, are natural shortcuts that our brains use for problem solving, learning and discovery. Heuristics are used to speed up the process of finding solutions, where an exhaustive brain search would be too onerous; however, these mental shortcuts predispose us to certain evaluation and decision-making errors. Here are two of the most salient to management relations:
- We process bad over good in just about every area of our lives – despite perceived optimism.
- Our behaviour may be subject to more unconscious manipulation than we care to acknowledge.
From an evolutionary perspective these biases make sense: keenly focusing and noticing the good would bequeath little survival advantage. In a similar fashion, unconscious processing of environmental cues, such as the distant smell or noise of a predator, may have helped keep us out of harm’s way without us having to think it through.
This bias in our thinking may well be hard-wired into our neurology, and current research suggests that we preferentially process the bad over the good. People react to changes in previously stable conditions with strong reactions, but these subside over time as the resulting circumstances become perceived as habitual.
Unfortunately, good feelings disappear quicker than bad, which is why studies of lottery winners show that after a brief spell of euphoria their happiness returns to its previous baseline. Bad life events such as serious accidents and sickness, however, have been shown to dissipate much more slowly, if at all. Therefore, bad seems to have more salience than good.
In a similar way it has been shown that generally people show greater distress when losing money or entertaining the idea of losing money than happiness in finding an equivalent amount. This mental attuning to loss is also noticeable when we have an expectation set that is not fulfilled and then suffer the accompanying disappointment. This may be a contributory factor in the formation of psychological contracts – see ‘Guess who?’. It can also be why some financial and reward incentives not only fail to motivate people but actually de-motivate those who don’t attain them.
Our moods are also affected disproportionately: bad or irritating events that cause negative moods have been shown to affect people’s sense of well-being the following day, whereas events that cause positive moods do not seem to show the same effect.
This apparent asymmetry between bad and good also applies to relationships: the quality of communication has a different impact on how happy we are with others. Negative types of communication, such as insults, threats and criticism, have a more decisive effect on relationship outcomes than matched positive ones. When people reciprocate negative interactions the effect is also more powerfully detrimental to the outcome of a relationship than reciprocated positive interactions, and is also predictive of lower satisfaction in the future. Some research has also shown that living near or working with the
same people for long periods of time is more likely to cause animosity than to lead to friendship – which may explain the saying ‘familiarity breeds contempt’.
In general, when we meet new acquaintances we will also process what we deem negative information more thoroughly than positive impressions. Should a relationship move successfully past this phase, its development or curtailment could be made or broken through countless subtle exchanges. Dr Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, referred to this emotional balance of relationships by suggesting we all have ‘emotional bank accounts’ that we hold with others. He stressed that for relationships to be effective we need to keep the account ‘in the black’ with lots of deposits – little positive behaviours, acts of kindness, following through on promises, being reliable – and very few withdrawals – letting others down, dishonesty, negative appraisals, criticisms, sniping etc.
While keeping our emotional bank accounts from going overdrawn is an admirable goal, research seems to suggest that it is actually much easier to inadvertently empty them than fill them. Some researchers have suggested that all things being equal, about five good events are needed to balance just one negative. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of developing a bad reputation with a seeming minimum amount of effort, you will intuitively appreciate the unfairness of this bad-good asymmetry.
Bad reputations are very easy to acquire and difficult to lose, whereas good reputations are hard to acquire and very easy to lose. This is partly due to our tendency to stereotype people based on their characteristics or traits. Another heuristic called ‘false attribution’ also plays a role. This is a tendency when evaluating our own performance to reference the context and situation as a contributory factor whilst other people will tend to infer that we are mostly to blame, independent of contextual factors. This heuristic can confound attempts at objective performance appraisal and be the cause of much disagreement.
Why do we think like this?
Our cultural tendency is to think of people as self contained individuals with self-determined personalities who deliberately initiate behaviour, but this may be both an exaggeration and an oversimplification. When we place individuals in the foreground of our evaluations, we may miss important contextual and situational determinants of behaviour. In one experiment typical of the research that exemplifies this effect, researchers contrived to have people take a call in a public phone box. Half of the participants received what they thought was a free coin left in the return tray after the call. When leaving the phone box all participants were confronted by a person who had just dropped a load of files on the floor. Interestingly, most of the participants who had received a free coin helped to pick the files up, in contrast to very few of the control group. This study, and many more like it, show that little situational cues sometimes called ‘unconscious priming’ can have a strong impact on behavioural outcomes.
You may be thinking this seems like bad news. We pay more attention to the bad than the good; situational influences and heuristic processing jointly affect our behaviour, which mostly operates under our conscious threshold. This being the case, how can we possibly understand ourselves, let alone manage and relate successfully to others?
While there are definitely no simple answers, we can help redress the balance towards more positive outcomes and stronger relationships. The following are a couple of useful and practical tips to counteract the negativity bias:
- Mentally stand in the other’s shoes and try and see things from their perspective
- Help people to feel safe
- Elicit a good mood in others
before you ask for something.
In conclusion, if you’re planning a career move to any management position, or just want to improve the quality of your relationships, it’s worth further developing your people skills now. Recognise that people are not as objective and rational as they like to believe. Working on counteracting the negativity bias by achieving more good than bad interactions and helping people feel positive will contribute to developing stronger, longer-lasting and more rewarding relationships.
Ian McGarry is an international business psychologist. He can be contacted directly at email@example.com.