Negative energy can take over fast if we’re not paying attention. And once it has a grip, it’s that much harder to break.
It might not be outright bullying or shouting matches. Nevertheless, you might sense that misery has surrounded your team like ominous clouds. You don’t know if or when the storm will hit, but you can definitely feel it in the air.
How’d it happen?
Good leaders should never assume things are “fine.” Entire departments—even whole companies—can become so bogged down with negative vibes that only an overhaul will turn it around. If unchecked, negativity can spread like a plague over a team, says leadership coach Michael Hyatt. “[It kills] cooperation and slows down the work we do,” he says.
And it’s scientifically proven. Researchers call it emotional contagion, and say it pays to gauge the mood of your team. There are three top negative energy bugs that you should guard against:
Ever abruptly dispatch someone from your office or over the phone with a brusque “I don’t have time for this right now!”? Or heard a member of your team do it? It happens—and we realize, “Wow, that was rude of me!” and mentally slap ourselves on the head.
Give people enough work and stress with not enough down-time, and knee-jerk rudeness could become default. Researchers talk about “low-intensity deviant behaviors,” identified as “incivility with an ambiguous intent to harm,” and how they can become contagious when given a toxic environment in which to grow.
Everyone has those “short” moments. It’s when you detect everyone in your office has them much of the time that things need to change.
Arguing Just to Argue
Your team takes on a lot, and so do you. So you know how testy things can get when you’re involved in a project that has a million pitfalls, or mired in paperwork that never seems to end.
Faced with daily frustrations, it’s easy to turn helpful suggestions into arguments or even fights: “I’d appreciate if you just let me get this done the way I know how!”
Some people just love to argue, it’s true. But if every employee interaction turns into a contentious debate, it’s a sign that they could really be venting about a larger problem.
This results when employees feel overworked and under-appreciated. Incivility at work “has been on the rise, yielding negative consequences for employees’ well-being and companies’ bottom lines,” warn researchers from the University of Arkansas.
What happens: Someone bosses us around, so we use the same tactic on the next person who needs our attention.
After surveying people in the workplace, the researchers noted that when people experienced incivility earlier in the day, their own levels of self-control were reduced—which resulted in their increased incivility later in the day.
In other words, insults and slights frequently harm employee performance—and can provoke payback later.
Good News: It’s Curable!
It turns out, positive energy spreads, too. We know this intuitively, but it helps to remind ourselves once in a while that an upbeat outlook can be contagious.
Hyatt says researchers identify six ways managers can spread positive energy:
1. Show off a positive attitude
You don’t need to plaster a smile on your face all day. But recognize that you do set the tone for how you feel about your job.
If employees see you approaching your day (even the bad ones!) with good humor and enthusiasm, they’re likely to adapt and extend that enthusiasm.
2. Create an inspiring vision
Leaders have to communicate organizational goals in a compelling way. But you don’t need flowery, over-the-top language to do it.
Stick consistently to a short list of aspirations or goals to routinely reference when new opportunities come up. This emphasizes to our teams that reaching those goals is a real and valuable accomplishment.
3. Contribute meaningfully to team conversations
You let your team do most of the talking, and that’s great. But they also want signs that you’re still listening.
Signal that you respect their contributions by seizing on their ideas and thoughts even on things you’re not directly supervising. Engaged employees are happier employees, according to research.
4. Be fully present and attentive
You might be the highest paid person in the room, but everyone deserves your attention.
Encourage behaviors that promote attentiveness. Institute a no-cell-phones rule for meetings, or take discussions to a break room or another place where you know you won’t be interrupted. Giving people respect and recognition helps overcome indifference (and it’s polite, too).
5. Always give credit where it’s due
Being treated as an equal boosts employee outlook, says Mary Jo Asmus, a former Fortune 100 executive and founder of executive coaching firm Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. “Nobody has a corner on the best ideas. Most people – including the smart ones you hire – love to think for themselves,” she says.
Make it a point to spotlight when someone else has the winning contribution or an idea that works.
6. Celebrate successes
When you reach important benchmarks, praise and reward the effort. It boosts the mood and helps maintain momentum.