HR and the negativity bias


Put yourself in the shoes of one of your employees for a moment. What was their last interaction with HR, and if you had to categorise it from their perspective, would you say it was mostly positive or negative?

What do employees typically contact HR for? Firstly there is the routine, transactional stuff; questions about holidays, changing bank details, ordering cars….

Then there is the not so nice stuff. We are putting you through performance management, there is a restructure, you are at risk of redundancy, please re-apply for your own job, an investigation, a disciplinary, performance management. Or conversely, HR is the place where an employee comes when they are unhappy. To raise a grievance, complain of bullying, moan about the benefits offering, make a protected disclosure. We are the people that own these policies, make these rules and decisions; sometimes because we genuinely own them, sometimes because we gets the blame irrespective.

I know that there are HR departments out there doing great, positive stuff that adds real value to their organisation. I like to think I’m included in that list too. But here in lies a challenge for HR; the negativity bias can kick your good endeavours right to the back of your employees’ brains.

Put simply, the negativity bias means that we remember the bad stuff more than the good stuff. It resonates so much more strongly within us.

Have you ever had great feedback from someone, and then comment on one little thing that isn’t so good – then all you can focus on is that one negative thing? That’s the negativity bias kicking in. It’s not your fault; it’s the way your brain is wired. It all goes back to our need to survive in early human history; we had to pay plenty attention to danger and potential risks. It occurs in every aspect of our lives, work and personal. Negative experiences are stored and recalled more easily than positive ones. Our brains are also wired to overestimate potential risks, to set off alarm bells. To see problems when there might be none.

How is this relevant to Human Resources? Unfortunately, because of our very functions within an organisation, employees may well have negative interactions with HR. Whatever the underlying cause for the disciplinary action, whoever really made the decision about the restructure, we are often the face of it. And that means the negativity bias will taint their view of HR. Employees will always remember the unpleasant performance review process (owned by HR of course!) before they recall the enhanced benefits package we just launched. Basically, negativity is sticky.

And the only that can tackle the negativity bias is positive interaction.

There is some evidence (in personal relationships) to suggest that the perfect ratio to ensure the positive outweigh the negative is 5:1. You need five times more positive interaction to outweigh any negative interaction. That means we have to work all the harder to make sure our interactions with our employees are as positive as they can be, when they can be. And in the inevitable times they can’t be, well, we just have to do them as professionally as we can.

I’m off to review the employee recognition scheme…..

Image by @AATImage (Graham Smith)

5 thoughts on “HR and the negativity bias

  1. Gemma,

    You raise some really good points. One of the things that frustrates me is that HR functions don’t focus enough on the positive initiatives and messages they can deliver. Sometimes we are our own worst brand ambassadors. Too many HR functions send out regular missives from the centre about what employees should and shouldn’t do. Too many other departments use them to communicate their messages…..people are misusing IT systems? Who sends out the message, HR or IT?

    Yes, we have to do some “negative” stuff, but a) we can do it positively and b) we can counterbalance this by being the owners of good news too. So next time you have a really good incentive scheme or initiative, don’t let the CEO communicate it, make sure the HRD communicates it. And again and again and again.

    I was sat at a Christmas party last year next to a member of staff I didn’t know and I was introduced to them by someone else. They said, “Oh Hi….I love seeing emails from you, because it always means something cool is going to happen….” One of the most satisfying moments of my career.


  2. Good post Gemma. There is some interesting research out there on high performing teams, carried out by Marcial Losada. He drew three conclusions as to what makes a high performing team. Importantly, all three of these things need to exist in partnership.

    There is an effective ratio when considering ourselves and considering others, 1:1
    There is an effective ratio when considering asking versus telling, or inquiry versus advocacy, again 1:1
    There is an effective ratio when considering the positive over the negative of at least 3:1. At least 3:1. Losada found the ration worked right up to around 10:1 before looping off into delusional la la land (my terminology not his). I find these rations helpful when I’m observing how teams work together. Very few come up to the mark in my experience.

    Have fun with that recognition scheme – Doug.

  3. Great blog about a common problem afflicting HR. As Neil says we can manage our communication better, including getting others to do their own communication rather than giving HR the dirty end of the stick. We can also help to create good news too, on a macro and micro scale. For me it comes down to whether we are in a ‘partnership’ with managers and how we define that partnership.

    For me the partnership is when we share responsibility for creating and maintaining a place people want to work. So when people are abusing IT systems, as Neil says, we help IT craft the message but it comes out in IT’s name. On a macro scale we design policies, processes, schemes for how people are hired, developed, paid and rewarded, and work with the leaders of the business (at all levels) to implement them effectively. On a micro scale, where much of the negative connotations are seen, we help leaders lead better by providing formal development processes and by coaching them on the job, as part of our local partnership relationship with them. If they have someone underperforming, or whose attention seems to be elsewhere too often, we help the leader identify how they should address it and then leave them to implement the action required. We may also identify people with qualities and potential that the team leader is not recognising, and use our influence to improve the leader’s recognition of those folk, bring them on, provide opportunities, and we help move them into jobs where the organisation gets a beter return on their talent. Then we’re using our position to benefit the organisation as a whole, taking responsibility for moving the talent into the the most effective roles.

    If we’re doing as much of this stuff as we are handling disciplinaries, grievances and redundancies, and fielding complaints about pay and benefits, we should be generating loads of positive interventions that we can talk about and be recognised for.

  4. I think that you’ve really hit this issue head on. I hate that it continues to drag us down and that HR folks even tolerate the stigma. I’m all about being positive in our endeavors and know that it works !! Fab post Gemma !! Thanks for putting it out there !!

  5. Pingback: Best of the HR blogs July 2013: 19 great HR blog posts from July 2013 | XpertHR - Employment Intelligence

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