Relentless Negativity: How organizations make sub-optimal decisions through the cognitive biases
Which are more numerous in the English language, words that begin with k or words with k in the third position?
Most people say the former. In fact, there are three times as many words with k in the third position (ankle, ask, awkward, bake, cake, make, take …), but we retrieve words by their initial sounds, so keep, kind, kill, kid, and king are likelier to pop into mind on demand.
The frequency, type, and timing of information tend to distort people’s perception of the situation. Frequent discussions/news/events leave stronger memory traces and vice-a-versa. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called this mental bug Availability Heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.
This has a far-reaching impact on the way people make decisions. Politics (voting pattern), business (performance appraisals) etc are obvious examples. But I have seen the impact in some non-intuitive cultural aspects of the organizations. I have been associated with a few organizations that believe all meetings, especially the review meetings, should only be about discussing what’s going wrong. They constantly talk about seek information for all things going wrong.
Of course, the critical discussions help us improve things. But relentless negativity can have unintended consequences. One of the less obvious ones is: it can bias the decision makers mind. It makes them perceive things are much worse than what they are. This perception leads them to make decisions that mitigate good things happening. The nature of things we discuss interacts with the nature of cognition to make us think that things are much worse than they are.
"Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold ..."
A deal lost to a competitor is a bad news and comes along at a particular point in time. But the building of a robust sales process is a time-consuming task. So over a period of 6 months, let's say, a few deals could be lost (due to the reasons not attributable to salesperson's lack of performance) while the new sales head is building a robust process-driven sales organization. Also,
The memory of a bad thing is much stronger than that of a good thing.
Hence the organization is likely to assess the performance of the sales head negatively.
“But relentless negativity can itself have unintended consequences, and recently a few journalists have begun to point them out. In the wake of the 2016 American election, the New York Times writers David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reflected on the media’s role in its shocking outcome: Trump was the beneficiary of a belief—near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” … For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root …. One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change.”
The relentlessly negative meetings (and review meetings) can bias not only the decision makers but also the employees. Because in their mind the employees had started perceiving that any new change is also going to be just as bad as the one before which was worse than the earlier one and so on. While the leaders have lost faith in employees, the employees themselves have lost confidence in leadership and fellow employees to come out with a better/workable solution. Employee’s commitment to the next new change has been increasing lower, throwing things into the negative spiral.
I recently read a book ‘Enlightenment Now’ by Steven Pinker. All the above 'quots' are from that book. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have highly recommended this book. Although the book is written with a different context, I found that the concepts discussed could be very relevant to analyse iner architecture of culture and decision making within the organizations.