Spot the caveman in you: Don't let negativity affect your creativity!

Written by Matt Bolton-Alarcon on 15 April 2015

We all spend time on this planet blissfully unaware of how negative we actually are. But is it blissful? I believe over time it can be dangerous. We are hugely self-critical even if many things we do are outstanding. We fear change even when that very change makes total sense and is quite exciting. We tread carefully with our careers, even if we want to be truly ambitious. We are cautious around new people even when we are social animals. Spot any of these traits in yourself? They all come from a place of negativity.

However, you can take a breath and relax. It isn’t you. It’s Mother Nature. Much like every Cocker Spaniel having an in-built tendency to puts its nose to the ground and find the scent of a pheasant, we humans have an in-built bias towards negativity. We are still very much like cave people. They had a heightened awareness to danger to keep them safe from beastly predators. There have been studies that show when we get exposed to negative stimuli our brains have a much bigger surge of electricity than the surge that comes from positive or neutral things. That’s why bad news or the memory of something going a bit wrong lives with us longer and stronger than more positive news we get and experiences we have.

However, if we let this negativity bias remain at an unconscious level, it can build up over time and have a major effect on our happiness and success. This tendency is inherent in all of us so we may never be able to totally fix ourselves but if we can regularly try and notice those things that make us negative then we have options. Here are some things which may tune you up.

Pause. Think. Speak

This is really important when you are leading a team. People look to you to be inspired and engaged. I once spoke at a conference for a client where the MD wanted his people to take more initiative around creativity thereby giving people license to experiment and fail. He had a bunch of people talk about the need for creativity on the big stage and then the Finance Director took to the stage. He opened with: “Brilliant session on creativity, but now on to the real business of work”. It was just a one liner, supposed to be a little joke, but because it was a leader who said it, it deflated the entire audience and gave everyone the impression that creativity actually wasn’t valued or valuable. In the moment just before he made that comment, I would have suggested PAUSING for a second, THINKING about the potential impact of his words and then SPEAKING. I think he would have made a better call. 

Get the team balance right

The dynamics in a team are very much like those in a marriage. You need the arguments and disagreements in order to enjoy the laughs and easy-going times.

Marriage guidance counsellors regard a healthy couple as one that has five times as many positive interactions as they have negative ones. 

I used to work in a highly successful creative team. There were five of us and when we were together our glue was our dark, cynical humour and sharing that felt great. We would then turn that humour into something useful and ultimately we always produced good work. Then we recruited one more person who was highly creative but couldn’t switch into a positive mindset when the rest of the team did. The balance was tipped and within weeks we were far less powerful as a group. Negativity had eaten us up.  

Challenge beliefs

Our in-built negativity bias constantly tells us we aren’t good enough. We have a bad experience at karaoke and it says things like “you’re a bad singer” and “you shouldn’t ever stand up in front of big groups”. These are the voices in our heads that make up our belief system and they’re in all of us. If we don’t challenge these voices then we will constantly talk ourselves out of things.

I informally coach a pal of mine every so often who told me recently that they felt ready for a new challenge and described the kind of workplace they wanted. I said “You should try Google” and their immediate response was “Ah but I’m not clever enough for that place!” I pushed them around that because I consider my pal one of the most intelligent people I know but they don’t see themselves that way. 

Hunt positive feedback

We spend a lot of our time at Upping Your Elvis getting our clients to hunt down feedback every single day. It need only take a couple of minutes but if you ask “What did I do well?” and “What could I do even better?” you can stay sharp and, at the same time, clear those silly voices I mentioned  in the point above.  

We do have to constantly persuade people not to latch on to the negative or constructive feedback. Otherwise they tend to totally ignore what they’re actually great at. It can be like when you get an exam paper back and you have 90/100 but, instead of thinking that’s great, people have a tendency to jump in and find out which 10 they got wrong. 

So you’ll never fix yourself completely, but if you think about the language you use, allow for a bit of healthy cynicism, challenge your deeply entrenched beliefs (and those of others) and get balanced feedback, positivity will thrive. So will you.  

Matt Bolton-Alarcón is a partner at Upping Your Elvis. He can be contacted at


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