Leading Through Negativity

Updated Over a Week Ago


During the GIVE Leadership 2012 Sustainable Leadership Tour, I was honored to work with teams around the country on how to maximize results and trust partnerships by resolving conflict and reducing negativity; the foundation for leading sustainable teams.

Over the summer, a number of organizations requested that I facilitate an activity called the Medicine Wheel. These organizations wanted specific assistance with their team’s ability to partner effectively and network with their business partners.

Identify Tendencies

Similar to Myers Briggs or DISC, the Medicine Wheel provides an engaging model that involves all team members in identifying the positive and negative tendencies of everyone in the team, including management.

It is also a great way to start the process of developing a common language that helps team members understand what negative tendencies may be causing conflict for some team members.

During the session, I ask participants to identify the negative behaviors that frustrate them about their own personality types and those of others.

A common question frequently comes up on why people focus on negative traits.

Positive Focus

I quickly explain that leveraging our positive tendencies is the second objective of the session. The main objective is to discover how other people see us.

Unfortunately, others tend to see us in a negative way all too often.

This may be due to something called the negativity bias, a psychological phenomenon by which humans pay more attention to, and give more weight to, negative experiences. There is scientific research showing that we are in a “negativity handicap” on a daily basis because others will focus on our flaws or mistakes instead of focusing on what we do well or what we can achieve by leveraging our strengths and learning from our mistakes.

In his article, Banish Your Negativity Bias, writer Jeff Haden quotes neuropsychologist Rich Hanson, who says, “our brain is like Velcro to negative experiences and Teflon to positive ones.”

This is critically important for leaders who want to keep talented teams together. If team members naturally focus on the mistakes and faults of others, outstanding performance can be difficult to sustain before negativity creeps in and severely taxes the team’s overall performance.

Leverage Positive Traits

Since others may see us in a negative light by default, it’s critical that we can start leveraging our positive tendencies to overcome the “negative handicap” imposed on us by others. If we are not aware that someone may be naturally included to judge us negatively, we may react negatively to harsh comments or critical remarks from others.

At times we can do this directly to the person, or find ways to work against the other person through negative office politics and gossip.

When we do this, we can actually verify the other person’s negative assumptions about us and start a process called collusion. Collusion is a term used by The Arbinger Institute to describe the process by which we draw the worst in one another. In other words, we draw the behavior we hate in others and they draw the behavior they hate in us. It’s a destructive, negative cycle, very common in organizations and families.

Can you see a connection between the negativity bias and the burning fire in the animation?

So, what should we do about negativity bias?


As I mentioned above, we need to ensure that we purposefully leverage and maximize the positives of our personality traits. Tools like Myers Briggs, DISQ, or the Medicine Wheel all provide this type of information.


We should focus our efforts on finding the positive rather than the negative in others. Negativity breeds negativity and we need to lead past this by focusing on the positive and strengths in others. Speaking for myself, staying positive can be a daily struggle.

Hard to Please

Leading past my negative bias was one of the most important lessons I learned about my own leadership when I was managing large teams. I was often referred to as a manager that was hard to please. The truth is that many times I was impossible to please.

My teams would deliver impressive results and, yet, I was always there pointing out what could have been done better.

While continuous improvement and lessons learned sessions are very important in the development of a team, as managers, we need to keep our negativity bias in check and make sure we are not creating expectations that can never be met.

Look in the Mirror

After years of looking in the mirror and challenging my own negative bias, I started noticing how prevalent the negativity bias is at all levels of our organizations.

A common example I find is staff members who will not give a manager a chance to change after receiving feedback. Anything the manager does is dismissed as “fake” and “temporary”. He or she will “go back to their old ways very soon”.

Another common example is managers that will not give new opportunities to employees because of previous mistakes or something they didn’t like in a past project.

How Do You Overcome Negativity Bias?

  • Have you seen similar examples to the ones I have listed above?
  • Have you experienced a conflict that can be attributed to the negativity bias?
  • How does negativity bias cloud our judgment and develop incorrect assumptions?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Al Gonzalez
Al Gonzalez
Al has worked for 16 years helping others maximize the quality of their leadership at Motorola, CBS Sports, and Cornell University. He’s used these experiences to develop trust-based leadership tools for all levels of management.
  • Mark Graybill says:

    Al, this is an excellent article! The smooth and non-technical way your words conveyed empirical findings is what I aspire to. And I love the Arbinger Institute.

    How others view us is critical to us because if we are regarded highly we may have more safety and security, and opportunity. The opposite may be true if we are not regarded highly. Thus, we are drawn to focus on and remember the negative because of our hardwired tendency is to attribute to those things as being threats to our “balance” (homeostasis).

    Our “homeostasis program” is mostly interested in what threatens homeostasis. It has been speculated that it does so through a sort of “negative counters” – the lowest counts means the safest. Further, what is positive may be merely “space” between the counts.

    The interesting thing is this is one of our most fundamental mechanisms, but we have others in our nature that can work better and acquiesce this one.

    One of my favorite books is Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall, which captures the corporate sociopolitical jungle that ensues from these tendencies.

    Thanks for the great article!

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