How to Create a Positively Contagious Work Environment

Germs and colds aren’t the only thing we spread around in the workplace.  Our emotions, both positive and negative, are just as contagious.  Have you ever walked into a meeting and felt so much tension that you became tense too?

positive leadership, leadership development, leadership styles, leadership traits, leadership coaching

The Mirror Effect

Researchers have found that we have specific neurons in our brains that make us react to and mimic the feelings of another person.  They are called mirror neurons.1 For example, when I see someone getting pricked with a needle (and I hate needles!), the mirror neurons in my brain can light up just as if I’m the one getting pricked. 

This phenomenon has been replicated in countless experiments involving emotions that range from pain to fear to happiness to disgust.  This is why smiles become contagious and babies automatically mimic the funny faces their parents make.

As we pass through our day, our brains are constantly processing the feelings of the people around us — taking note of the inflection in someone’s voice, the look in their eyes, the stoop of their shoulders.  In fact, we can identify an emotion on another person’s face within 30 milliseconds and then, just as quickly, be primed to feel the same emotion.

This is what makes it possible for the mood in the room to jump from person to person in an instant.  You may have noticed that when your boss walks into a meeting in a really bad mood, within minutes it can spread to the entire room.  And the effects ripple out from there, as each worker returns to their cubicle, spreading negativity like the plague.

Spread the Cheer

Fortunately, positive emotions are also contagious, which makes them a powerful tool in our quest for higher performance in the workplace.  And the power to create a positive environment multiplies when you are in leadership position.  People higher up the ladder are more likely to transmit their moods to those lower in the company than the other way around. 

Studies have found that when leaders are in a positive mood, their employees are more likely to be in a positive mood themselves, to exhibit more helping behaviors, and to collaborate better together.  And this impacts results. 

What this means is that “leading by example” is no longer an empty mantra.  Cindi Bigelow, president of Bigelow Tea, sums it up this way: “Leaders cannot afford the luxury of a bad mood.”

I’m not expecting you to be in a good mood no matter what comes your way.  I’m all too familiar with the downsides of business – laying off workers, losing a big account, missing an important deadline.  Bad things happen, and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel disappointed, angry, or frustrated at times.

Unfortunately, most of us were never trained how to quickly get out of a bad mood.

If you played sports, maybe you were lucky enough to have a coach who instructed you to “shake it off.”  Or perhaps you had a mom who told you, “This too shall pass.”  But I doubt that you learned to manage your moods as part of a leadership training course.

4 Strategies to Maintain a Positive Mood

There are 4 proven ways to get yourself out of a negative mood, and none of them require much time or money:

  1. Identify and label your emotions
    The very process of naming what you are experiencing can diminish the negative emotion you are experiencing.  Sometimes, you just need to be honest with your team.  Say, “I’m having a rough day, but if we dive in to this project, it will probably help me get back on track.”
  1. Take a few long, deep breaths
    Researchers have found that slow deep breathing produces an immediate calming effect, allowing you to recover quickly from stress. This is something you can do wherever you are.  Inhale slowly, counting up to four.  Hold the breath, counting up to seven. Then release the breath very slowly, counting up to eight.
  1. Take a walk
    When you’re stuck in a negative mental state, the worst thing you can do is just sit at your desk and take it out on the next person that happens by.  Instead, take a walk and let off some steam, preferably with a trusted advisor alongside.  If you can get outside, even better.

    Start to notice what happens when you simply get up from your desk and walk around.  It can help to break an intense emotional reaction and depersonalize it.  Solutions from the logical part of your brain will then be clearer to see.  

  1. Fake it ‘til you make it
    When all else fails, try what psychologists call embodiment.  This means putting your body into a physical stance that can change your psychological state.  You’ve probably seen the now-famous TED talk where Dr. Amy Cuddy explains how certain “power poses” can make you feel more powerful. 

    Another famous study had participants hold a pen in their mouth – either with their teeth or with their lips.  The group holding the pen with their teeth was using the same facial muscles that simulate a smile.  This “smiling” group reported a subsequent activity as more entertaining and interesting than the other group.

In conclusion, notice what kind of mood you’re in before you walk into work.  If you’re in a good mood, great.  Go ahead and spread the cheer.  However, there may be times when you’re feeling nervous, annoyed, or impatient.  This is understandable.  But you also lead a team of people.  You cannot afford to let your negative mood affect the productivity of those around you. 

Negative moods are inevitable, but positive leaders know how to get out of them quickly so that they don’t negatively affect their team’s engagement.

Want to learn more positive leadership strategies?  

Download the Positive Leadership Manifesto today!

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1 Achor, S. (2011).  The Happiness Advantage.  Random House books.



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