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)