All Articles Leadership Productivity Negativity in the news is squashing your productivity. Here's why

Negativity in the news is squashing your productivity. Here’s why

Our daily lives can feel overwhelming, but there's a way forward.

6 min read




Read any news story, and the deluge of negativity may just take your breath away. Some days, it feels like a punch to the gut.

Just look at some stories from recent weeks: The markets went down in the first quarter. Toys R Us’ liquidation squashed Hasbro’s sales, and Cambridge Analytica gained access to 87 million (or more) Facebook users’ private information. Not to mention that e.coli recently prompted a warning to avoid all romaine lettuce.

Great — just great.

Threats to your wallet, your health and your emotional well-being are plastered in bold, black letters across nearly every front page.

Meet the survive channel — your friend or foe?

Negative headlines hold the power to trigger one of our most basic human instincts: the instinct to survive. This “survive” channel is hardwired into our brains — think: caveman hears noise outside of cave, grabs club to attack — and can send us into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Heart racing, panicky thoughts flooding our brain —  the constant stream of negative news can send us spiraling out of control.

Combine daunting news stories with the stress of your day job, demands from your personal life, even small headaches like a snowstorm or train delay, and it can be hard to see anything but the immediate problem at hand. Opportunities to thrive, explore and learn something new become buried by the noise of constant threats.

But don’t misunderstand: the survive channel isn’t your enemy. It’s an extremely powerful mechanism that has evolved within human beings over millennia to help us neutralize threats as efficiently as possible. When tapped appropriately — that is, when used to solve key, immediate and real threats — the survive mentality can work wonders for you and your organization.

The question becomes how to tap into the survive instinct properly, especially when triggers like negative news articles or late-night emails from our managers are blocking us from spotting opportunities to create and innovate. How much of our workday is spent reacting to external stimuli versus proactively seeking out new ways to push the organization — and ourselves — forward?

Meet the thrive channel: An (untapped) fountain of possibility

That’s where the “thrive” channel comes in. It offers a way to help us deal with some of the biggest challenges almost all of us face in our increasingly fast-changing world.

The mental channel devoted to thriving — seeking opportunity, innovation and creativity — is what has helped the human species develop and excel. But it is less easily triggered than the survive channel. Consumed by threats (real or imagined), our brains often don’t have mental space to tap into this channel. We’re therefore missing an opportunity to boost our productivity, express our creativity and push the bounds of what is possible for our organizations.

We’re missing the chance to expand, explore and evolve.

Emotions triggered by the thrive channel are often positive — excitement, pride, the passion of doing something you love, the fulfillment of contributing to something bigger than yourself. Our bodies like the hormones that are triggered by these emotions and will work hard to maintain that flow over time.

The challenge is that the survive channel is much older and stronger than the thrive channel. And, in the world of the 24-hour news cycle, negativity can pile on top of negativity, leading the survive channel to overwhelm our brain’s ability to focus on thriving. Indeed, the laser focus that is associated with survival not only limits our ability to see opportunities more broadly, it can also prevent us from identifying which threats are real and which are imagined.

Calibrating the seesaw: A balancing act

Since both survive and thrive are fundamental for the success of organizations and leaders, it’s important to take proactive steps to ensure neither one can subsume the other.

Employees who maintain a healthy survive channel keep their organization aware of competitive threats — they are reactive, but efficient. And those with space to operate in thrive mode help to identify opportunities — new avenues for growth, creative ways to meet customer needs and opportunities to innovate.

In a perfect world, organizations would tap into both channels, in unison. Yet in the actual world, the thrive channel is often subsumed by the hyperactivity of our survival reactions. Managerial minds are more likely to feel the weight of hazards created by the reporting cycle, demands from the corporate office and competitive pressures from the outside.

This stress is contagious and can ripple throughout an organization. But could thriving be contagious, too? How can we make creativity spread instead of anxiety?

Leaders must be intentional in understanding and filtering reactions to survive/thrive stimulus to keep the organization in balance. They can do so by asking:

  • What triggers survive responses within me and my employees? Late-night emails? Market crashes? And are any of these truly important?
  • Is negative news keeping me in a short-term mindset? Is it hindering my company from identifying possibilities for long-term growth?
  • How can I look for opportunities instead of hazards? How can we, as leaders, trigger the “thrive” flow within our organization?

By mapping out and learning to consciously calibrate between their survive and thrive channels, leaders can gain insight into what triggers each of these instincts and create a culture that seeks to understand and maintain a balance between the two channels.

In achieving this equilibrium, leaders can then fill the organization with more talk about opportunities — especially those that touch the heart, not just the mind — and foster a cultural mindset that drives people to want to engage.

Now put down this article, close the browser and start thinking about how you and your organization can thrive today.


Rachel Rosenfeldt is a director at Kotter, the leadership and strategy acceleration firm founded by Harvard Business School professor John Kotter. Rosenfeldt is an expert in leading transformational change in complex global organizations and building strategic, meaningful client partnerships. Email her.

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