Combating negative bias in communication

by External02 Apr 2013

Communicating solely via emails, texts or online communication? What impact is this having on our ability to your ability to get unambiguous messages across? Tammy Tansley suggests social neuroscience may provide some insights.

One of the many interesting elements of my line of work is helping organisations with “cultural audits”. In these audits, I neutrally observe, talk to people and report back on what life is like in a particular organisation. I might also conduct a quick pulse survey or some focus groups.

Almost always, employees report back on communication issues. Either a lack of communication, or inappropriate or inadequate communication. It’s a tricky area, because communication is by its very nature so personal.

One recent audit had an employee showing me examples of emails as an illustration of the communication (or lack thereof). Without the organisational context and experience, these emails appeared to me to be “fine” and I didn’t detect any overt nastiness or any specific issue that would immediately get my back up.

So it was interesting to come across the Daniel Goleman research into the new field of social neuroscience. In essence, this research shows what happens when people talk face to face or on the phone. The connections that their brains make, and how this (usually) allows for some form of responsiveness within the conversation depending on the reaction of the other person. This does not work with emails, texts or online communication.

Goleman has found that there is a negativity bias online. That is “..what you thought was a neutral message can be perceived as hostile by the recipient..” and what you thought was positive can be perceived as neutral by the recipient.

Back to my recent example; where no doubt, the sender intended the email as neutral at worst, and yet, it was received as negative – and this then had a whole host of flow on consequences.

The need for those annoying emoticons becomes more evident now – as people rely on other cues other than just the words to help provide the context to the emails, texts and online words.

It’s a fascinating area of research and has huge implications for the way that we work, when you consider both the ever growing global workplace and the continued reliance on technology as a way to communicate.

Not only does it mean that there needs to be etiquette around communicating online. It also means we’re at risk of losing the ability to communicate effectively. If the social neuroscience research is correct, and the brain can most effectively make these connections either face to face or on the phone; we will all need to become best selling writers to just construct the simplest of emails that appropriately conveys the message (and tone) of what we’re trying to communicate.

I am wondering why we put an impediment there when it doesn’t need to be there. Perhaps, it’s best that we just pick up the phone or get up off our chair and go and talk to person directly. Might make communication just that bit more effective, simpler and cut out all the noise.


About the author

Tammy Tansley is the principal of Tammy Tansley Consulting, a HR consultancy specialising in workplace relations, change and organisational design that inspires, engages and enables positive workplace change and performance. For further information visit or email