Stress and negativity are contagious. But fortunately so is the cure.
The phenomenon of cultural contagion is real – one happy employee (especially when it’s a leader) produces another. Happiness spreads to improve your organisation’s culture with tangible cumulative gains in productivity, commitment and customer service.
We all know what it is like to be around people who are angry, stressed or upset. People are quiet and heads are down. The moods of others, and especially leaders, affect us in subtle and profound ways.
Recent studies clearly demonstrate that our states of mind are heavily influenced by a wide and subtle range of influences. One study showed that people subconsciously generate a defensive mindset when they witness someone else being blamed (DiSalvo, 2011). For example, when a manager publicly blames a worker for a mistake, everyone who overhears that exchange subconsciously moves to a more defensive, self-protective mindset.
If you have ever been at a board meeting and seen what happens to creativity and problem solving after some aggression or embarrassment you will recognise how direct and immediate the impact is. It is simply harder to have an open, idea-rich conversation.
The research shows that this self-protective mindset, which is on the sympathetic side of the autonomic nervous system (think ‘fight/flight’), narrows the person’s focus and tends to spark what the psychologists term ‘specific action tendencies’ (i.e. take one specific action – act on it now and think about it later) (Frijda, 1986) (Lazarus, 1991).
Positive emotions have been shown to physically undo the effects of anger and fear through reducing heart rate and blood pressure (Fredrickson, Mancuso, Branigan, & Tugade, 2000). A happy and engaged workforce is more productive; has longer tenure of employment; and takes fewer sick days. Happy workers are more resilient, more creative and flexible (Harter, 2002).
The key message here is that the emotional intelligence of your leaders is critical not just to their own productivity, but also to that of the people around them. The language they use, their attitude, and their behaviour all matter. Culture in an organisation is contagious, and your leaders set the culture.
If you have leaders who are consistently able to lead by example then you will find a cumulative improvement in the culture of the workgroup around them. People who are authentic, open, honest and affirming help set the tone and others will follow.
Attitude is contagious; pay attention and make sure your leaders are setting the right example. When you see a leader losing their positivity it’s crucial to invest in getting them back on track.