#MeToo, Russian interference with US elections,terrorist car bombs; you’d think the world is getting worse every day. Look again.To find positive change, look in the rear-view mirror for what’s not there.
Yesterday’s Bad News Sells
It’s easy to get discouraged when checking on your daily news feed. Juicy as it is, the news is not a reliable indicator of long-term or positive change. Your news feed takes advantage of two human biases that skew our perception; the negativity bias and the recency effect.
Why do political smear campaigns have so much impact? Because they take advantage of our Negativity Bias. Our brains are wired to be more sensitive to unpleasant news. This bias is so automatic it can be detected at the earliest stage of the brain’s information processing. No doubt this helps us to avoid danger, from our pre-history as vulnerable hunter-gatherers to crazy drivers cutting us off on freeway traffic. But it comes with a cost.Constant bad news results in stress build up, skewed judgement and over or under-reaction.Click To Tweet
The Recency Effect is the tendency to notice what’s happened lately. It can affect everything from performance reviews to stock market buy and sell decisions. A communications mentor of mine once told me, “Old news wraps fish.” (Referring to a time when old newspapers were used to wrap fish and chips.)
Why does this matter? These recency and negativity biases can lead to high stress, poor decisions and a narrow outlook that doesn’t take into account the full complexities of a situation. As a leader, you seek to motivate others and set a positive standard. How can you do this when you’re overwhelmed with gloom? How can you maintain a positive but realistic outlook?
Look Behind You
Sometimes, you need to look in the rear-view mirror to notice that change has occurred. These changes are often subtle, small scale, but cumulative. One example is mindfulness. In my book Mind Your Life: How Mindfulness Builds Resilience and Reveals Your Extraordinary, I show that progress in mindfulness skills comes not so much from the presence of positive states but the absence of negatives ones (page 196). As a leader, your ability to handle conflicting opinions productively, deal with unacceptable behaviours and ensure fair delegation will go a long way to removing the negatives that impede people doing their best.
Do a Review to Find the Absence of Negatives
Your high school English teacher probably taught you not to use double negatives in your sentences. But in tracking sustainable change, double negatives can be good, though hard to spot. You have to deliberately seek them out, and look for what is no longer there.
- What conflicts or stresses are you no longer experiencing (or not as much)?
- What situations or people are no longer triggering you?
- Are you getting less of certain criticisms or negative feedback?
Look for Rising Standards
Long term change involves a change in expectations or standards of what is acceptable—a new normal. Recent examples from the last few decades include; corporal punishment in schools (not permitted), regular church attendance (down), homosexuality as a crime (no longer), a woman taking out a bank loan (legalized in 1974). or sexual harassment and assault (now coming to the fore).
These change in standards follow a predictable arc.
- A behavior is so normal and accepted that it is not even commented on. >> No news.
- A change in expectations occurs among a small group of people, who no longer accept this behaviour. They start to comment among their friends, agitate publicly. >> Early qualitative news stories.
- As the change becomes more broadly accepted, more people comment and agitate. People start to track occurrence and publish numbers. At this stage, it may look like the behavior is becoming more prevalent; in reality it is just more visible. There is still a gap between desired standard and the actual behaviors. >> Quantitative and trend analysis news reporting.
- With tracking of numbers, wide spread public commentary, social or legal sanction, the behavior is no longer tolerated and substantially diminishes. >> A new normal is becoming established.
What is your take-away? If you feel that things are getting worse, look in the rear-view mirror to see if it’s something that used to be accepted and invisible, but is now becoming visible because it is no longer tolerated (phase 3 above).
Lengthen Your Perspective
Sometimes, you have to look way back in the rear view mirror to appreciate how much—or how little—things have changed.
In the Mad Men era, what would now be called predatory workplace behavior was acceptable. Now, Abigail Johnson of Fidelity Investments states that (Globe and Mail, October 26, 2017) “we have no tolerance at our company for any kind of harassment. From anyone.”
How do you get a sense of this longer perspective? It’s like that child’s question, “What was it like in the old days?”
Get creative. Read period novels or watch old movies—not just for the fun and content, but to see what was normal then but is not found now. Talk to elders from previous generations, or people from other cultures.
Looking in the rear view mirror, noticing the absence of negatives and lengthening your perspective will foster the resilience you need as a leader of positive change in your world.