Man sitting in a dark room

The Negative Brain


Do you ever feel as if you have the evening news running in your head, and all the news is bad? Based on research, approximately 50% of the evening news is negative. Our brain replicates the evening news, and for some, the statistics are worse; their percentage of negative thinking is much higher. 

Our brains have a negative bias. From the dawn of history, the brain has developed to be hypersensitive to the negative input – it kept us out of harm’s way. You are here today because many of your ancestors for thousands of years, heeded the warnings and did not get eaten by wild animals. So that part of our brain, the built-in apparatus supersensitive to negativity is alive and well and active. 

There is no surprise that this comes to play an especially influential role in our executive lives. Negative emotions and thoughts can eat away at productivity, creativity, and decision-making skills. Many executives work vigilantly trying to prevent failure. Preventing failure is a distinctively different process than creating success. The reality is the energy is neutral until we personalize it and give it a positive or negative meaning. 

Negative setbacks are three times more potent in affecting motivation than positive progress. It’s just easier to remember the bad stuff that has happened to you than the good. Unfortunately for many, they learned a tendency to focus on, and react to, experiences with strong negative biases and learned this early in life. 

Hogan assessments measure a variable called good attachment. When the scale is low, it indicates that the person most likely had early childhood parental relationships that were less than an ideal. Approximately 10% to 15% of the executives with whom I work have a low good attachment score. Their active protective brain is vigilant about looking out for what is most commonly perceived unconsciously as danger. 

The stories these leaders share range from hearing about highly critical parents precluded the child had to experiment daily trying to figure out how to please the parent, and unfortunately, to little avail, to the emotionally absent parent to the physically absent parent. Sometimes these stories are sadly disturbing when they are stories of abandonment, abuse, or total rejection. What it has taught me is that we are remiss if we believe that executives are free from these experiences. 

When I encounter executives that had less than ideal early childhoods, themes become present. First, the leaders I work with are very successful; most have transitioned into their most substantial role to date. Most have never made a connection to how they lead today, or who they are today, and how their early life experiences influence how they lead. How I observe the relationship is in how each person approaches leading and where they have their most significant challenges. The behaviors I see can be any combination of the following:

  • Introspective, vigilant and concerned about their performance and the work they produce
  • Responsive to coaching and feedback
  • Overly self-critical
  • Take the criticism personally
  • Tend to be their worst on enemy
  • Intense, edgy, stress prone
  • Self-derogatory
  • May have boundary issues
  • Fear being “found out”

Remember that I described these executives a very successful. It seems paradoxical that they could be described with some of the bullet points above and still be successful. The key is their vigilance and resilience. They become high achievers as a result of an overly active response to constant negative thoughts, warning them to watch out for the potential failure looming around the corner – self-doubt drives vigilance. They aim high and are committed to giving their very best to whatever endeavor they upon which they set their sights. A noble aim to be sure. Unfortunately, giving their best never seems to equate to being the best. 

Vigilance requires energy, potentially bringing on the exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. It can lead to exhaustion or high responsiveness to stimuli or being highly emotional. Each person that experiences these reactions has their responses to the ‘threats’ or stimuli. The anxiety created typically is responded to by aggressive behavior, dependent behavior, or withdrawal. All of these reactions have the possibility of impeding or derailing success. 

For these leaders, it becomes paramount that they understand the connection that early life experiences have on how they lead and react to the world they lead within. The goal is not necessarily to uncover all unconscious thoughts, but more to give a name to the connection as a step to positively moving forward. When you have this self-awareness naming the thematic feelings can give you a sense of power over them. Imagine the difference between holding these related thoughts: “I am horrible at this” versus “I am having that ‘dad’ thought about being horrible.” Just this very act of reframing a thought moves it away from fusion (no choice) to a place of choice (what do I want to do with this thought?). 

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
― Henry David Thoreau

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