Workzone: Negativity can paralyze workers

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We all know the feeling. It's the sense we get over that mediocre project we wish had turned out better or when that looming deadline seems just too much to handle. Before we know it, worries are mounting, dragging us into a tailspin of negativity that's tough to escape.

The phenomenon is called the "negativity bias" -- a cognitive mechanism that amplifies the attention paid to negative events and minimizes positive ones. Psychologists believe this bias not only affects how we feel, but also how we perform.

"Negative events stick out in our minds mostly because they're rare," said Edward Orehek, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. "Most of the time, when you get in your car, the car starts, and when you press on the brake, the car stops. The one time when you get negative feedback stands out -- and that can decrease motivation."

When humans lived as hunter-gatherers, possessing this heightened sensitivity toward negative events made sense: If a lion were coming toward you, you would have the sense to run in the other direction.

But the adaptation isn't quite as useful for modern-day humans, sitting at desks and trying to get through an assignment without working themselves into a panic.

The effect of negativity, Mr. Orehek says, is often to lull a person into learned helplessness -- to feel too incompetent to work.

Luckily, there are strategies to minimize the succession of negative thoughts.

Some think the solution is as simple as retraining our attention on more positive thoughts and actions. Try to make more appreciative comments. Keep a written list of accomplishments and other points of pride by your desk.

These purposeful steps will make positive feelings register in a stronger way, said Michael Crom, chief learning officer of New York-based Dale Carnegie Training.

But, Mr. Crom added, smiling might be the most useful emotional tool of them all. Studies show that the simple act of contorting one's face muscles into a smile -- however contrived -- makes a person feel happier. "And, it's an expression that tells other people, 'I'm interested in you as another person,' " he said.

Others, like Mr. Orehek, think the solution lies in the way employees spend their time. A lot of workplace stress results from looming deadlines that vie with a constant flood of emails for an employee's attention.

Peter McGraw, an associate marketing professor at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, suggests working on the most important projects first rather than the projects closest to deadline.

"What creates anxiety is when you are only focused on deadline, and you have to push off important things," Mr. McGraw said. "So you oftentimes are trying to work on both, instead of focusing 100 percent of your attention on one -- and when you're finished, being able to switch over."

Still, there might be one lingering benefit to paying outsized attention to negative events.

"Part of the reason why negative events stand out is because they suggest something needs to change," Mr. Orehek said. If an employee receives an angry email from a customer or a negative evaluation from a boss, she will likely feel motivated to modify some aspect of a routine to fix the problem.

Of course, it's tough to turn a negative event into a productive learning experience if an employee is already bogged down with the feeling of crippling negativity. But it provides all the more reason to make a conscious effort at positive thinking, because then a truly rare negative event will take less of a psychological toll.

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The illustration accompanying this story inadvertently was published last week as well.


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