Customer and employee negativity hurts. They undermine your best laid plans, they drive complaints up and deflate employee morale. Corporate communications are necessary, but in themselves lack efficacy.

Stamp Out Negativity!

Customer and employee negativity hurts. They undermine your best laid plans, they drive complaints up and deflate employee morale. Corporate communications are necessary, but in themselves lack efficacy. Why does the human brain have a bias for negativity? We share four behavioural hacks that leaders should be applying on a daily basis.

Banks are soft targets: headlines on bank greed and misconduct sells newspapers. Customers form negative impressions of banks because of availability bias (they see more negative stories than positive ones).

This is frustrating for bank leaders. Customers are taking for granted:

  • Huge advances in service improvement: “time-to-yes” for loan applications have fallen from weeks to as little as an hour over the past decades;
  • Greater convenience e.g. capability to access a vast range of services through mobile services, in real time (no need to queue at a branch);
  • World-class reliability: when was the last time you lost your savings? In the U.S., 465 banks failed between 2008 and 20121? The average customer can expect 99.99% flawless experience over their entire lifetime (e.g. payments happen like clockwork, statements are accurate, merchant terminals work as they should etc.) You can’t say the same about other industries: retail shops run out of stock, apps and software crash, and getting help from someone at a tech company (such as Paypal or Amazon) is almost impossible.

Both customers and employees are impacted by abundant negativity.

A customer with the predisposition “banks are bad”, over reacts to small failures: “…what do you mean you can’t reverse these fees – you banks are all the same!”2

A grouchy team member infects other team members. Conversely positive employees are more likely to be empathetic and go out of their way to help a customer.

The Headwind/Tailwind Asymmetry

Banks leaders can do little about biased media, but one of the ideas stemming from behavioural science can help counter the bias.

Psychologists and Social Researcher, Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai3, identified that we have a tendency to feel that we face more headwinds than other people, and we undervalue the tailwinds that help us. For example, their research shows that people tend to believe their siblings are treated better by their parents; and people often feel their sports team are disadvantaged compared to other teams (e.g. bad refereeing decisions).

In banking, people might lament the “personalised” service of bank managers in a bygone era, and quick to forget the inconvenience e.g. in old days you had to make an appointment with a bank manager, go into a branch and grovel. A bank leader said: “as a customer whether you call us or walk into any of our branches across the country, you can expect the person helping you to have adequate knowledge of your circumstances to help you. Previously, if the manager went on leave, you had to wait.”

We overweight headwinds because headwinds hurt, they demand our attention and leave a longer legacy. Our reptilian brains are wired to remember pain to help us avoid it in the future. By comparison it is much easier to take tailwinds for granted e.g. good health, freedom, and fresh air.

In addition, humans are quick to adapt to better standards of service (called the hedonic treadmill). For example: bank mobile apps enable you to check your balance and transaction record instantaneously and at no cost. Customers might be delighted when this capability was first released, but the delight fades fast. If a customer cannot access transaction records beyond, say, 90 days on their mobile device, they become agitated easily (and forget that in the old days they had to pay a fee and wait for weeks to be sent paper statements).4

How It Undermines Customer Service

The impact extends beyond customer happiness and employee engagement scores:

“People who feel unfairly treated have a greater tendency to endorse morally questionable behaviour”5

People have a tendency to overweight their contribution relative to their co-workers. When the over-inflated perception of self isn’t matched with rewards (such as acknowledgement, salary increases etc.), people are more likely to misbehave (underserving customers, sweeping problems under carpets, and dishonest dealing).

Overcoming the Headwind/Tailwind Asymmetry

1. Reminders

Change management and culture programs have used “contrived reminders” to help teams appreciate their tailwinds. For example, team members are:

  • Gathered in a workshop and asked to list reasons why their team/company is a great place to work
  • Asked to express appreciation of a colleague by creating a “certificate of appreciation” for them
  • Bombarded corporate communications that emphasise why their company is a great place to work

These methods work because of the availability bias. As advertisers know, consistent repetition creates conscious and subconscious awareness.

A word of caution: Gilovich and Davidai say that reminding people how lucky they are is fraught with danger. It can cause them to raise their guard, make them feel that you’re trying to manipulate them or to discount their achievements.

Advertising on TV and Social Media increase awareness of products, but they don’t necessarily cause people to love products.

It follows that “contrived reminders” such as corporate communications create awareness, and perhaps in the short term bump employee engagement scores up a few percentage points, but they may not create intrinsic/genuine belief.

Corporate communications are necessary, but in themselves lack efficacy.

Observe employees carefully and you will see them glaze over when these “contrived reminders” are pitched at them.

To be clear, we’re not suggesting leaders stop sending positive messages to employees, we’re saying more needs to be done to overcome the bias for negativity.

2. Focus On Progress and Successes

All too often we hear bank staff say something like this:

“Mr Smith, I am afraid you didn’t fill in Section D. This is causing a delay. Can you fill in the form and get it to us please?”

A better way is to focus on the customer’s progress:

“Mr Smith, we’ve received your application. We have all the documents. We’re 95% there. We can have the loan approved if you could fill in Section D. Do you have a copy of the form or would you like me to send you one?”

3. The Art of Using Leading Questions

To get people in touch with their tailwinds, Gilovich says it’s better to ask leading questions like, “How has luck played a role in your life?”

Leaders can use this tactic to boost employee morale: gather your team in a meeting and ask:

  • What have we achieved in the past 6 months? Prompt: customer satisfaction scores, productivity, reduction in complaints, compliance results, training completed etc.
  • What role have we played to achieve this result? Prompt: efforts of individuals, examples of good behaviour etc.
  • What role have factors outside of this team played to help us achieve this result? Prompt: aide from other departments, new technology, training, new performance management system.

The effect is fourfold, it:

(1) Focuses the team on their successes;
(2) Gets people to appreciate the efforts of their team mates and the team’s effort as a whole;
(3) Re-enforces good behaviour; and
(4) Gets people to recognise the tailwinds that have helped them.

Customer service staff can use leading questions to reframe customer conversations:

  • How long have you been with the bank?
  • Have you encountered any problems with us in the past six months? Prompts (use 1-2 only): Any issues with loan, credit cards, savings account? All payments have gone through with no problems? No security issues? Mobile app working fine? Have you been able to reach us when you needed to?

These questions come across as: “we care for you” rather than “let me tell you how great we are or how lucky you are”. More than often customers will say something positive, and this helps to frame the bank in a positive light. On the other hand, if customers have a grudge, the opportunity is to demonstrate empathy, fix issues, and connect with the customer at a deeper level.

4. Strive for Deeper Meaning

Leaders should reframe conversations to help customers and employees shift mindsets.

A bank leader shares an example:

“When I speak to my 6 year old, I don’t talk about products. When we go for a stroll, I point out houses and tell her that what we did was let these people move into a home to protect and grow their family, and over time when they can, they pay money back to the bank.”

Here’s another example:

Negative mindset Deeper meaning Sample leading questions
Why do banks charge an overdrawn fee when I have money in another account? Being in control, dealing with uncertainty To customers:
  • Have you had money taken away from you without your knowing?
  • Do you think it is important you control what money is taken out of your account, rather than let someone else decide?
  • Would you find tips on how to avoid overdrawn fees useful?

Share your expertise

Do you agree or disagree with the ideas in this article? We’d love to hear from you: what strategies have you seen work? Please leave us a comment.

We’d like to thank Haris Preljevic of Commbank and David Gatt of Westpac for reviewing the paper and pushing us to go deeper. Note that the opinions expressed in this paper are not representative of Haris, David, or the organisations they work for. It is not to be construed that they endorse the ideas included in this paper.

We’d like to credit Steven Dubner of Freakonomics for his sterling interview with Tom Gilovich and Shai Davidai.

Stay tuned: we’ve been asked by readers to produce sample templates that leaders can use in team meetings. It’s coming!


2This is explained by confirmation bias: the tendency to favour or interpret information that confirms existing beliefs.

3Davidai S, Gilovich T.. The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry: An availability bias in assessments of barriers and blessings. Journal of Personal Social Psychology. 2016 Dec; 111(6): 835-851.

4This is a fundamental Kano Principal: what was once a delighter is now a basic need.

5Op Cit. Davidai S, Gilovich T.. 2016.

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