Article: Resilient Leadership - Outsmarting the Negativity Bias

Resilience isn’t just about bouncing back – it’s about growing and thriving. If you're trying to build resilience in your employees, it’s time to rethink the way you coach.

Four strategies to build resilience in your leadership

Bright Dickson, MAPP
Senior Consultant

Forward-thinking, innovative leaders are talking about resilience in all kinds of contexts – infrastructure, cybersecurity, and disaster recovery. As the business world becomes faster and ever more complicated, resilience becomes more and more critical to successful leadership. Many leaders report putting out fires takes more time and attention than actually building their businesses. How can leaders be more resilient and get back to creating strong, healthy organizations?

It is important to understand our brains are wired to find problems without even looking for them. It’s called the negativity bias – our tendency to notice, remember, value, and react to threats and danger over opportunity. It’s a useful evolutionary adaptation for survival, but negativity bias interferes with our ability to see critical issues accurately. To cultivate a more accurate and resilient mind, train your brain to seek and find the “good stuff.” In creating and developing this habit, the neurons in your brain will begin to wire together and see more of what’s actually there. This practice is not necessarily about becoming more “positive,” but rather about outsmarting the negativity bias to be more thorough, exact, and methodical.  

Below are four strategies to build resilience in your leadership:

  1. Focus on strengths
    Many coaching sessions and team meetings focus on shoring up weaknesses and correcting off-target behaviors. While not problematic, this tendency represents a missed opportunity to learn from our strengths, our innate positive qualities, characteristics, and interests that make up the best of who we are. You can think of this like you think of investing – would you rather invest your hard-earned money in a strong stock or a weak stock? Of course it’s smarter to invest in a winning stock more than a losing one, but when it comes to employee development opportunities, the negativity bias often points us towards the problems. When employees are able to capitalize on their strengths in their everyday work, they are more energized, focused, and interested in what they're doing. Moreover, focusing on strengths can provide space for creative thinking around how to deal with some of those weaknesses. Tools like Gallup StrengthsFinder and the VIA Character Strengths Inventory can help identify hidden talents and strengths in the workplace.
  2. Encourage positive connections
    In the everyday hustle and bustle of modern business, many leaders feel so much urgency they fail to put time and energy into forming and deepening strong, positive relationships with their teams. Research tells us the primary reason employees leave their jobs is their relationship with their manager. So take the time to cultivate those positive connections – ask co-workers about what’s important to them or what good things have happened to them lately, and respond to what they say with warmth and interest.
  3. Look for what's going right
    To combat the negativity bias, a leader must actively pursue the facts about what’s going right. Take time in team meetings, one-on-one coaching, and moments of personal reflections to think about, record, discuss, and celebrate what has been going well in your organization. Not only will you build your own neural networks, you will change the tone of your organization by helping others build theirs.
  4. Breathe
    Sometimes a leader just needs to slow down to see the brighter side of things. Stress and pressure build up in the body in ways you can clearly feel – a knotted stomach, tense shoulders, or heat in your chest and face. The instantaneous feedback loop between our brains and bodies causes our negativity bias to ramp up even more, and soon we're viewing a neutral or ambiguous situation as a dangerous one. Happily, calming the body will also calm the mind. Take a few deep breaths when you feel the tension mounting. Getting more oxygen into your bloodstream will relax your fight-or-flight response to help you regain powerful, positive leadership in tough moments.

None of these strategies is a silver bullet, but over time, leaders will find bouncing back from adversities becomes easier and more automatic. Practiced often and well, leaders will find  these four strategies will spur growth and development, so they see problems as opportunities. Resilience isn’t just bouncing back – it’s growing and thriving.

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