Context

I used to work for this boss who, while he was a great guy, scared the crap out of me. He had a well-earned reputation for being a tough, no-excuses, results-driven leader. I was fortunate in that I was rarely on the wrong end of his desk when something went south, but that isn’t to say that I hadn’t ever experienced his wrath either, and when this happened, I always left a changed man. That said, most of my interactions with him were very pleasant – in fact, I think the ratio of “things are looking good” to “butt-chewing” was probably around 60-1. But that didn’t mean that when I got a meeting invite out of the blue with the subject “Jim and Jerry touch base” my stomach didn’t drop a little bit. OK, so it would drop a lot. His assistant, who saw his calendar got to where she would laugh because I would call her as soon as the meeting showed up “Jim, I don’t know what it is about, but I am sure you are fine.” She would say, then no doubt go into his office and have a big laugh at my turmoil.

Believe it or not, there is a name for this: Negativity Bias. Negativity Bias is when we go to the worst-case scenario when we have no other context. We’ve all heard how the universe abhors a vacuum, that meeting notice from your boss (or HR), with no context, is a vacuum. So what is your mind going to do? It is going to fill that vacuum with negative thoughts. “Oh crap,” you are telling yourself, “he knows I have been slipping in late these past two weeks,” or “great, I know my webcam slipped on that Zoom meeting yesterday… and I was wearing my Spaceman Spiff sweatpants.”  Or, “I think I drunk dialed him Thursday, right before calling in sick.”  The reality may be one of those things, or it may be that he wants to tell you he is happy with how you have been performing. He may want to tell you that he is sorry he hasn’t been able to get by sooner, but has noticed that the past few weeks you have been staying a little later. Or maybe he wants to let you know that he appreciated your professionalism on that Zoom call with the new client and hopes you are feeling better after calling in sick Friday. We never go to these possibilities, though.

I am telling you this because if you manage people or work in HR, you can avoid doing this with others. For example, if you need to schedule a meeting with a direct report, don’t just send a meeting invite, follow it up with a quick note: “Hey Jim, I just sent you a calendar invite, I was hoping to get with you on that new proposal for the XYZ project.” It only takes two minutes, but it can help alleviate tensions and make the meeting more productive. Of course, if you are giving them bad news, don’t sugarcoat it, but at the same time, there is no sense in scheduling the meeting, either. Just do it and be done.

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