Bad is stronger than good

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The 5 thinking traps-Safety-Bad is stronger than good

Is your fear of losing out clouding your thinking?  Are you persisting with a poor strategy just because you have invested a lot of time, effort or money in it?   Our evolutionary hard-wiring and hyper-sensitivity to danger and loss has helped us survive and become the most successful species on the planet, but this ancient survival strategy can inhibit growth and damage important relationships because it becomes the Thinking Trap of Safety.

Thinking Traps are the unconscious biases that we have developed as hard-wired survival strategies over the millennia of our existence.  While biases are a convenient shortcut to making quick and efficient judgements, they can blind you to important new information or better alternative options when making a decision.  The key skill of a modern leader is not to try and stop the biases (which is simply impossible), it is to notice them.  Once we are aware and mindful of these thinking traps we can recognise them for what they are and explore if they are really serving us or not.

This is the final article in a mini-series that discusses the SEEDS® Model developed by Dr. David Rock and his colleagues at the Neuroleadership Institute.   For a brief overview of the model click here.  For the other articles in the series click here.

S is for Safety
The second ‘S’ in the model is for Safety.  This is about recognising that the power and influence of ‘Bad’ feelings and experiences are far stronger than those of ‘Good’.

In 1975 the first digital camera was invented by Steve Sasson a 26 year old engineer in a massive global company.  It was revolutionary – it could capture black-and-white images at a resolution of 10,000 pixels (0.01 megapixels) in just 27 seconds.  He took his contraption, about the size of a toaster, to his bosses and presented it as ‘Filmless Photography’.  They were horrified by his idea and told him not to tell anyone about it!  The only thing they could think of was that it would destroy their business which had 90% of the global market for photographic film and 80% of the market for cameras.  The company was Kodak and the unfortunate attitude and mind-set of the leaders eventually led it to filing for bankruptcy in 2012 because it massively misjudged the revolution in digital photography.

If the leaders at Kodak had explored their instinctive thinking and their fear of loss they may have seen the revolution ahead and positioned themselves as the leader in the age of digital photography.  How can you and your team avoid this Thinking Trap?

Numerous studies have shown that we are far more intensely upset if we lose £50 than happy if we find £50.  The feelings of loss or upset are about five times more powerful and stay with us for far longer than any feeling of gain or happiness.  Research by Sheldon, Ryan and Reis explored the impact of everyday events on feelings of well-being.  Their data showed that bad events had longer lasting effects.  If you experience a bad day there is evidence that it will affect and influence your well-being the following day, whereas if you have a good day there is no noticeable impact the next day.  Are you letting a few bad issues overwhelm your thinking because you are not contrasting them with all the good things in your life?

Balancing Bad With Good
One of the most important tasks in the success of any organisation or business is to cultivate and sustain a network of close relationships characterised by mutually beneficial, collaborative and supportive interactions.  In a number of interesting studies by John Gottman and his colleagues they were able to predict the longevity of marital relationships by noting the number of negative interactions.  The studies involved video recording couples as they discussed a wide variety of topics including how their day went, marital issues and specific conflicts or disagreements in their relationship.  The researchers coded the interactions into positive, neutral and negative verbal and non-verbal behaviours.  They found that the presence or absence of negative behaviours was far more strongly related to the quality of the couple’s relationship than the presence or absence of positive behaviours.   On the basis of his work, including some longitudinal studies over a period of two years which studied the same couples, Gottman proposed that in order for a relationship to succeed positive and good interactions must out-number negative and bad ones by at least five to one.  He noted that if the ratio falls below that his studies showed that the relationship is likely to fail and break up.

While Gottman’s studies were about personal relationships, it is worth noting what the ratio of positive and negative interactions are in your working relationships.  What do you need to do to increase the number of positive interactions in your working (and personal) relationships so the good balances out the bad?

Three Safety Biases
Scientists love to label and categorise things and some of the Thinking Traps of Safety are listed below:

– Loss Aversion: this is a bias that will influence our behaviour if we think that we will lose something.  It is interesting to note that we are more likely to avoid taking a risk if the expected outcome is positive but if the outcome is expected to be negative we are more willing to step out of our comfort zone.  In business this is often the driver of new and even risky initiatives because there is a fear that the competition will get an advantage and we will lose market share.

– Framing Effect: this bias is about how we look at things and ‘frame’ them in a particular way.  It means we tend to base our judgements on a particular frame while ignoring alternative frames.  This is heavily influenced by our perceptions of loss or gain rather than objective criteria.  For example, do you believe that taxes support society and are a contribution to the common good – a ‘social virtue’, or do you see taxes hindering progress and believe they should be lower because they are a ‘social burden’?  People who think they are a burden will vote for politicians who promise ‘tax relief’ ignoring the possible consequences for social health or education.

– Sunk Cost: this bias affects our judgement where we may be reluctant to change direction or stop a project because the amount of time, money and effort we have put into it.  This is frequently seen in the massive IT projects that go phenomenally over-budget and don’t even deliver the required results.

The Antidote
The Thinking Trap of Safety is triggered by intense feelings of loss or fear of loss which activates your stress-response.  This narrows your thinking, creates accidental connections in your brain that you believe to be real and makes you more pessimistic.  So one of the things we can do to calm that stress-response is to create ‘psychological distance’.  For example, you may want to think what advice you would give a friend who was in that situation, or what you would say to the Director of another business that was in a similar situation.  This objectivity can reduce bias because the threat-response is less active if we don’t feel personally at risk.

You can also imagine that you have stepped into a future when the decision has already been made and you are looking back at the present.  A number of studies have shown that taking this slightly removed perspective reduces the emotional and personal connections so our brain can calm down and make a more nuanced and wise decision.

The relentless busyness of work and the unending list of urgent things to do, means that we often forget to pause and take a moment to be grateful for all the good in our lives.  Living in the developed world can lull us into complacency about all the comforts and luxuries that surround us.  Compared to most of the people on the planet we are better fed, safer and suffer far less physical hardship.  It is a useful exercise to remind yourself this by regularly reminding yourself of all the little things in your life that you are grateful for and live with an attitude of gratitude.  This reduces stress and can also help us to become more balanced and mindful.

Raising Awareness
It is important to recognise that the Thinking Traps discussed in this series are universal and part of being human.  If you think that you are less biased than other people is it probably a sign that you are more biased than you realise!

It is pretty difficult to manage or mitigate biases in the moment you are making a decision so it is important to practice questioning them in advance.  This means working with your team to develop a number of ‘if-then’ scenarios that can allow you to practice the sorts of different questions you need to ask or different perspectives you need to check.   This includes giving one another permission to ask the awkward questions.  It is important to challenge the egocentric nature of human thinking where we believe that our experience and perception of reality is the only correct one.  While it may feel personal – it’s not, it’s about stepping back a bit and making better decisions for the long-term sustainability of your team, organisation or business (and of course your personal relationships!).

Raising personal and team awareness shifts you from automatic pilot to manual, putting control back in your hands.

There are a number of insightful exercises you can do to increase your mindfulness and explore your thinking preferences and the preferences of your team.  If you would like to find out more just drop me a line because it would be great to hear your thoughts about the Thinking Trap of Safety.

In the meantime remember to stay curious!

With best regards
David Klaasen

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