Culture Killers: Negative Bias

How to Keep Negativity from Ruling Your Work Culture

By now, you’re probably familiar with my mantra “We live our lives in stories.” (If you’re not, take a quick look here.) On any given day, here’s what happens:

  • We have an experience.

  • We form a story about it.

  • We look for further data to support the story.

That last piece—’look for further data’—might seem like an afterthought. But in reality: There is no ‘check’ on the quality of our stories EXCEPT for the external data WE find.

In other words, our storytelling is always inherently biased.

And those biased stories are directly impacting our work cultures, every day.

So the real question is: What’s the quality of your bias?

Negative Bias: When Storytelling Gets Dangerous.

Most of the time, our judgment is pretty good. We’re basically right and self-aware enough to be in the ballpark.

At the same time, none of us is immune to responding to a negative experience with negativity. We experience hurt, inconvenience, and misunderstanding. We feel fear. We feel despair. We feel…negative. And if we’re forming a story about that negative experience, you can bet we’re capable of doing so with a negative bias.

But that’s not the dangerous part.

Our storytelling gets dangerous when what we take from an experience is a judgment we are not willing to test. Aka:

  • When we let negative bias turn a complex human being into a caricature.

  • When we let negative bias turn a complicated interaction into an oversimplification.

  • When we let negative bias use a negative experience to tell a negative story.

*It’s worth noting: Negative experiences call for honest judgment. It won’t help anyone for you to slather negative experience with out-of-touch positive thinking. Negative judgments about negative experience aren’t wrong. What’s wrong is turning that negative experience into the ruling narrative about someone or something.

So how do we keep negative bias from driving our stories?

The short answer: We have to reach for greater self-awareness in our storytelling. We have to start examining how we think. (I recently heard it from Kimberly Davis like this: “If you’re going to change the way you see, you have to change the way you look.”)

Think of a time when you made a negative judgement about someone:

  • What did you ‘decide’ about them?

  • How quickly did you decide it?

  • Did you attempt some conversation to further understand that decision?

If you’re wondering whether or not you have a ‘good’ story—one that isn’t creating more toxicity and division in your culture—hold onto that wondering.

It’s the seed of openness, curiosity, and humility you need to fight negative bias. It’s your best tool for recreating a story that’s powerfully good, and healing, to live in.

Humility, Curiosity, Questions.

If we want to disrupt negative bias, we have to change our operating principle of life by realizing: I do have innate bias, and my perspective isn’t 100% right all of the time.

That’s humility: admitting that your story is inevitably, always subjective. That’s the inner, mental part of fighting negative bias.

Next, that humility is called into action.

The action that fights negative bias is curiosity: Have the vulnerability—despite hurt or frustration—to explore what you might not know or understand.

The way to deploy curiosity is by asking questions. Start the conversation without accusation and judgment, like this: “Here’s what I think is going on” or “Here’s the story I’m telling myself.” (I call that strategy ‘first-person storytelling.’) Listen empathetically, for the purpose of understanding (not responding).

Here’s a picture of what can happen when you deploy curiosity in negative situations:

  • The negative story can be corrected. (Through further exploration, you find out you were wrong.)

  • The negative story can be amended to bring understanding and healing. (You were wronged, but through dialogue, there’s forgiveness. The attached negativity is resolved.)

  • The negative story is right (you were hurt or inconvenienced), dialogue fails (you aren’t heard or understood), and you have a choice:

You choose gossip, add to the toxicity, treat the person as less than human.


You refrain from oversimplification, recognize this person as an equally complex human being, and reset.

Resetting: The Flip Side of the Story

If you’re experiencing the last scenario right now—if you’re reeling from a negative experience and find yourself holding onto past events—here’s what I mean by “reset”:

  • Stay honest and authentic about what’s going on.

  • Do not let that negative experience impact your thoughts about yourself and your capability—or your joy.

YOU create the story you’re living in.

And so long as you’ve done your due diligence to test it (through actual conversation) for bias, truth, and complexity, you can move forward from the negativity you know isn’t yours.

In the end, the most powerful act of self-awareness might be the willingness to see:

Your story has no use for that part anymore.


Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at