Negativity is a contagion.

When a contagion like the cold virus spreads, some people are more likely to catch it than others. The same rule applies to negativity. One factor makes everyone in a team highly vulnerable to catching toxic negativity from others: uncertainty.

Uncertainty makes us panic.

Your brain is constantly running Bayesian inferences on how the world around you works. You observe the world, create a model, make predictions based on this model and when reality clashes with your predictions, you tweak the formula and run it again.

If your environment is so uncertain that you can't predict what will happen next, you panic.

 Of all types of uncertainty "Irreducible uncertainty" or uncertainty that you can't do anything about, correlates especially well with your stress response.

The uncertainty of pain is more stressful than the pain itself.  

In one experiment, a group of volunteers had to predict the likelihood of finding a snake hiding under a rock, while researchers measured their stress reactivity. If they discovered a snake, they received an electric shock to the back of the hand, so they associated the snake with fear even if they weren't frightened of snakes.

Their stress response rose with increasing uncertainty of finding the snake/receiving the electric shock, peaking when the chances of finding the snake were 50/50.

They had a bigger stress response to a 50 percent chance of getting an electric shock, than to definitely getting it!

Uncertainty breeds a chain reaction of toxic negativity.

Studies show that the emotional reaction to uncertainty creates a cognitive bias, so we interpret ambiguous social situations and facial expressions negatively.

The stress response to uncertainty amplifies this bias and extends it to situations that are not ambiguous. Even neutral facial expressions, such as expressions of surprise, now seem negative.

This creates a feedback loop. We're more likely to respond to a neutral social cue with negative emotions, which then incites the person whom we have misunderstood to recipocrate our negativity, which triggers more negative emotions, and so on.

Toxic negativity spreads quickly within a coherent group.

One study has shown how, due to a phenomenon called "affiliative motivation", we subsconsciously try to match our mood to that of others in the group we want to belong to, echoing Gustave Le Bon's theory of crowds.

When volunteers anticipated interacting with a person in a negative mood whom they wanted to get along with, they felt more negative before they even met the person.  

Uncertainty programs our brains to assume the worst, stress makes us respond to this assumption with negative emotions and this toxic negativity rapidly spreads across close co-workers.

Keeping uncertainty levels as low as possible can help to prevent this chain reaction.

How do you reduce uncertainty?

Some of the greatest historical examples of leadership come from battlefields where one man had to inspire scores of others to follow him into a fog of uncertainty, in which one possible outcome was death. Minimizing uncertainty has always been a key role of a great leader.  

The journey of a startup is intensely uncertain. If you want to minimize toxic negativity in your startup by eliminating some of this uncertainty, these five steps can help:

1. Define the path.

Constantly remind everyone what needs to be done and how it can be done. This gives employees tools to bring the immediate future under their control.

2. Define the territory.

Define roles and make sure everyone knows exactly what is expected from them at all times. This gives employees a sphere of control.

3. Define your thoughts.

Be open and transparent with every decision, so employees can rest assured they know everything there is to know about their immediate future.

4. Define your cooperation.

Be genuine with your willingness to listen so employees trust you to take their views into account when you make decisions. This increases their perceived control over their future.  

5. Define the culture.

Foster a culture of positivity across your team. Some evidence suggests we can become more comfortable with uncertainty by training ourselves to develop a positivity bias, so we interpret ambiguous things more positively.

A recent randomized controlled trial found a significant improvement in uncertainty tolerance after a computer-based positivity bias-training intervention. Although they haven't all been proven to work, there are many free positivity bias-training apps on the market. One I like to use is Bias Modification by Tyrske.

Einstein said, "As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." The real world may be uncertain, but reducing this uncertainty even a little, can make a big difference.
 

Published on: Dec 15, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.