Are emotions contagious in the workplace?

Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day?  Maybe your stomach was always in knots.  Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night.  Or maybe your body physically hurt.  You just hurt, every day.  Simply put, you didn’t feel good.  Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy.  Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?

You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now.  For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?”  The bottom line is “yes” they are.  But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.”  Some workplaces are more contagious than others.  Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others.  And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?).  The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.

Curious?  I hope so.  I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end.  Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.

At the end of the day, work should not have to suck.  Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!

 

 

Prescription – Overcoming dysfunction

“Am I dysfunctional?” How many of us have asked ourselves that question? That has been our theme this month. Simply put, if you continue to relive the same unpleasant patterns over and over again in your life (Ex: you consistently have co-worker issues regardless of the job, you’ve never gotten along with any of your bosses throughout your career, you’ve been fired more than a few times, you have a long history of failed personal relationships, etc…) and you are the only common denominator, it’s time to look in the mirror. There comes a time when the answer lies within.

Diagnosing the Problem

The first step to any treatment is diagnosing the problem. Way back in my clinical days, when we were assessing a patient we would always ask: “is this person in danger of hurting him/herself or in danger of hurting others?” If the answer was “yes,” we had to step in. As you consider your unique dysfunctions and what they might be costing you at work and in life, consider this version of that very same question:

“Are my beliefs and actions costing me from having the life I want… and am I hurting others along the way?”

To that end, here is a work/life dysfunction quiz for you. Note how many times you answer “yes” to the statements below. Oh, and one more important point before you get started, be gut-level honest with yourself. After all, you’re the one who has to live with you!

Am I Dysfunctional? – QUIZ:

1. The number of hours I work each week equals or exceeds 80 hrs.

2. I’ve been fired for the same reason 3 times or more.

3. I never like to stay in the same place (either town and/or company) for more than 3 years. I’ve got to keep moving.

4. I don’t tell other people “no.” I have a difficult time setting boundaries and have a tendency to over commit.

5. I don’t trust anyone I work with… ever. People will eventually turn on you so it is best to always stay on guard.

6. I have a history of poor personal relationships because of my work getting in the way AND/OR I’ve been divorced 3 times or more.

7. My workplace reminds me of my family dysfunction growing up. I’m repeating unhealthy life patterns in the kinds of work environments I choose AND/OR I’m attracted to dysfunctional work environments.

8. I don’t trust myself and my decisions – ever. I’m always second-guessing myself.

9. I have a tendency to stay in one place, one role, and one relationship too long.

10. I have to win at all costs. If you’re not first, you’re last (thank you Ricky Bobby).

The Treatment Plan

Regardless of your particular flavor of dysfunction, the treatment is always the same – Self-Acceptance. “Huh” you say? “What is he talking about?” Let me explain. Whether your particular dysfunction is any of the following:

  • You are a workaholic
  • You are attracted to the “shiny”
  • You have a difficult time trusting others
  • You have a difficult time setting boundaries
  • You don’t trust yourself
  • You are constantly looking for approval
  • Etc…

It always tracks back to the same thing: not believing you are enough. One of my mentors, Len has a beautiful saying, when we are at our healthiest and best, we hold in our minds “I’m enough in my limitedness.” We believe that we are enough even though we are not perfect. We are comfortable that we can not only set healthy boundaries with others, but we can also be intimate with them and trust them. We can keep ourselves safe. We don’t believe that our self-worth is tied up in fancy titles, shiny companies or pats on the head. We have value because we are who we are.  This frees us to live the life and have the impact that we’ve always dreamed.

So, while I could go on and on about all of the little things you could be doing every day, at the end of the day it boils down to believing that you are as wonderful, as beautiful, as powerful as I know you can be.

Accepting and loving yourself for you who are is the first and most important step to overcoming any dysfunction.

Are you ready?

 

Playground dysfunctions at work

Dysfunctional is a funny word – particularly because it has the word “functional” in it. I love that irony, but I particularly think there is tremendous value in looking at the “functional” side of any dysfunction. While we can all agree that dysfunctions are destructive things, what is interesting about almost all dysfunctions is that they worked for us at some point in our lives. Dysfunctions are sneaky that way. They get us something (or at least the illusion of a pay-off), but eventually they cost us more than they get us down the road. So, I thought what better place to go to see the beginning of so many of our dysfunctions than the playground.

My kids are little (9, 6 and 4) so I am no stranger to the playground. We have all of our favorites around town, the one with giant dinosaur slide, the one down by the river, the church playground, etc… In just one hour of visiting one of our favorites, I had the pleasure of witnessing some of the most common dysfunctions we all experience at work.

The Bully

The first dysfunction was spotted almost immediately when we walked onto the playground. Over by the entrance sat one of those miniature cars perched on several oversized springs. Naturally, kids just love it. They can hop in, grab the steering wheel and bounce back and forth. The equivalent of the most popular work-out machine at the gym, this thing always has a line – until the bully shows up. In this case, the bully came disguised as a four year old girl with a singular pink bow in her hair. She marched right up to the car (bypassing the line), took a look at the rider and passenger in the car (there is only room for two) and began to push on the passenger to make room for herself. Eventually the ripple effect of the force caught up with the driver and he tumbled out of his side of the car. Ignoring the crying that was emanating from the ground, the bully looked quite content… until she realized she didn’t have full control of the steering wheel. Two more swift pushes and she was all alone in the car, a smug smile on her face and two crying victims next to her. She was bound and determined to get what she wanted regardless of who was in her way. Some bullies never grow up and take their bad behavior to work.

The Tattletale

Near the giant dinosaur slide, my 6 year old was playing contentedly. Deciding that it would be more fun and daring to climb up a slide rather than slide down it, he began the ascent. No sooner had he gotten a firm grip of the slide with both hands and began to push up, a little girl about his age came running over to him and the lecture began, “you can’t do that. You are not allowed… if you don’t stop right now I am going to go tell my mom.” He hopped down from the slide and began to re-evaluate his decision… or rather his approach. The funny thing was that the tattletale began to follow him. Every new approach he took, there she was with a new threat to get her mom if he didn’t do exactly what she said. She was going to make sure others followed the rules even though she had no direct authority. And if she busted them for not following the rules, she might just turn out to be the “good” one in the eyes of the “boss.”

The Spoiled Brat

Around the corner came the sound of carnival-style music. The sound was too familiar to all the ears that heard it – the ice cream truck. Kids were leaping off swings, slides and benches to line up. As they got their ice cream, one by one they walked back toward their parents. One child caught my eye. With a different flavor ice cream in each hand, this little boy of about 7 years old was absorbed with his treasures. He went and sat down next to his mother. After alternating bites on his two confections, his eye caught the ice cream sandwich a little girl was eating across from him. His mood turned. A frown appeared across his face.  He turned to his mother and spoke in a demanding tone declaring that he wanted one of “those.” As she resisted, his entire body began to shake in a violent tantrum. With the words “unfair” being repeated over and over again, mom eventually caved. Moments later he was enjoying his third ice cream. This same tactic works at work.  Complain enough about “unfair treatment” and one might just get rewarded with special considerations – whether earned or not – just to get them to shut up.  We call these people “complainers, whiners, and divas” amongst other things… 

Implications at Work

In each one of these cases, the dysfunction got the giver “something” (a lone seat on the bouncy car, power to influence the boss, more ice cream, etc…). However, in the end, as all dysfunctions do, they cost each of these kids playmates. No one wants to hang out with someone that is taking their stuff, threatening them, or always complaining that they didn’t get enough. Dysfunctions cost us healthy relationships.

So, the questions to you are simple:

  • Are you doing things at work that may be costing you “playmates”? If so, what could you be doing differently to “play nice” with those around you?
  • And if you encounter one of these dysfunctional patterns on your playground (at work), what do you do?

Tell them “No.”  They won’t like it, but they’ve got to learn eventually that real adults “share their toys” and play nice with others around them.

 

Are you carrying extra baggage?

I just returned last night from a short weekend trip. As I was frantically navigating the airport gauntlet, jumping onto trains and dodging other passengers desperately trying to get to my gate, my shoulders began barking in agony. Turns out, my trusty carry-on, a hanging bag that I’ve had for nearly 20 years, is on its last leg. Carrying that bag with its broken handle and poorly padded shoulder strap painfully reminded me of two things about us:

1. We’ve all got bags that we carry around with us through life with many of us using the same bags our parents’ used (we carry the same patterns or dysfunctions).

2. Those bags might have done the trick early on, but they often become bulky, worn-out and sometimes painful to carry later in our lives (as our lives become more complex, our baggage can not only get in the way but cause a lot more damage to ourselves and others).

Let me share with you two stories that nicely illustrate how our “old bags” can be limiting as we try to make our way to our “terminal” (can you tell I’m liking this analogy?).

Darlene’s Story

Darlene grew up in a very unstable household. Her mother was very distant and her dad suffered from untreated Bi-Polar disorder. Darlene was left to take care of her dad while her mom worked and largely distanced herself from the household dynamic. Darlene became uniquely adept at managing dad’s emotions. When he would get agitated, she knew how to calm him down. When he became depressed she could always be counted on to perk him up. Somewhere in the back of Darlene’s mind, she got tremendous meaning out of “saving” dad. Even further back in her mind, she thought she could one day save him from his illness if she could be good enough – perfect enough.

Fast forward. Darlene married a man suffering from Bi-Polar disorder as she repeated the pattern she started with her dad. Even more interestingly, throughout Darlene’s career she was attracted to working with larger-than-life entrepreneurs. She had several roles working for unstable bosses that she was uniquely equipped to emotionally manage. Sounds like a good fit for Darlene given her background, right? Wrong. In the end, she found herself caught up in multiple co-dependent relationships with emotionally needy and unstable individuals counting on her (her husband, her boss, etc…). Oh, and those unstable bosses also tended to cross ethical and legal lines in moments of desperation. Ultimately, Darlene found herself and her reputation in very dangerous and precarious positions (professionally and personally).

Sanchit’s Story

Sanchit had a challenging childhood with its own forms of instability. The oldest of five children, Sanchit saw his parents struggle to make ends meet and ultimately divorce. Sanchit watched all this unfold and concluded that in the end, you can’t count on others. Others are simply threats to be managed. One’s best strategy is to be on the offensive and hold as much control as possible over others.

Sanchit chose “risk management” for a career. In particular, he went into the credit lending profession for small businesses that were struggling. Sanchit was uniquely good at what he did. He could tell who was going to default and he always knew how to catch them in the act. The problem? Sanchit thought everyone was eventually out to get him. He was critical of anyone and everyone in his life – his spouse, his kids, his employees, and even his good customers. He believed that unless he was watching and judging everyone like a hawk, even the best people around him would turn on him eventually. If he didn’t stop soon, he was going to be losing a whole lot more than he wanted to. Ironically, Sanchit was running the risk of repeating the story he was so desperately trying to prevent from becoming a reality.

The Dysfunction

Just like my old ratty carry on, we all carry those “familiar” bags with us trying desperately to make them work. We repeat patterns in our lives that we are familiar with little thought to how those patterns typically play out in the end. Ultimately, if we aren’t careful, our baggage (our patterns) can lead us down some devastating paths. Darlene found herself sucked into the delusion that she could save others from themselves – costing her her own identity. Sanchit created scenarios that supported his belief that everyone was out to get him – costing him stability and trusting relationships, the same pattern his parents had to face.

The Treatment

In order to get rid of those old bags and start new, you have to do a few things first:

1. Look at all the jobs you’ve had. Is there a pattern of dysfunction that you are drawn to? Consider both the kinds of organizations you work for as well as the types of roles you’ve selected.

2. Where does that pattern come from? Where did that story first start for you and what were the beliefs that you formed about life and your role in life? Think back to your family dynamics growing up.

3. What do you get out of continuing to perpetuate that story? What does it cost you?

4. Given your answers to the above, what do you want to do? You could continue to choose the pattern you’ve lived out or you can make a change. It’s never too late.

We all are given “bags” as we enter into adulthood. Sometimes those bags work just fine and carry everything that we need. Other times, they are bulky and cumbersome digging into our skin as we try to drag them along the floor.

I’ll end with this great moment from last night that sums it all up. As I was finally making my way across the boarding ramp and onto the plane, the flight attendant whispered to me, “See that woman down there. She is convinced she can fit her bag into that overhead bin. Look, now she’s got another passenger helping her and they are pushing and pulling at her bag. I told her it wouldn’t fit but rather than check it, she was convinced she was going to make it fit. All she’s going to get accomplished is a torn rotator cuff. I promise that will cost more than $25 (the fee for checking a bag).”

Are you about to tear something trying to make your bag fit? Ditch the old bags and get something that’s more comfortable. I promise you’ll be happier in the long run.

 

The tale of the workaholic


Adam was your typical overachiever. He had an inner drive to be perfect in everything he did. From his career to his hobbies and even down to his exercise regimen, he was always “all in.” Adam worked that philosophy until eventually it cost him nearly everything he had…

Adam’s Story

Adam grew up in small coal mining town to two hard-working blue collar parents. The oldest of 5 children, Adam watched his parents struggle to make ends meet at every turn. From failed businesses to juggling multiple jobs, it seemed like they were always just keeping their heads above water. Throughout his childhood, it was preached to Adam that the only thing that mattered was perfection in everything he did. Adam was expected to set the standard for his siblings and anything less than perfect was not tolerated. Driven by a fear of failure and a hunger to please his demanding parents, Adam graduated top of his class in both high school and college and was a two star athlete. Upon college graduation, Adam took the most challenging and demanding opportunity available to him – investment banking. On day one, Adam was paired with a demanding boss that drove him relentlessly and refused to tolerate anything less than perfect. Adam was a machine. In a typical week he logged more than 100 hours at work, regularly sleeping in his office rather than going home. Adam thrived and was seen as a rising star.

Somewhere in this chaos, Adam found time to meet and ultimately marry his wife, Beth. Three years later Adam and Beth welcomed their first child into the world. Four years after that, they had added two more children for a grand total of three and were living a financially comfortable life with Beth at home and Adam continuing his grueling pace.

The Conversation

On a rainy Sunday night, Adam got home from another marathon day at work (yes, it was a Sunday) and Beth was waiting for him at the kitchen table. In a solemn tone she said, “Adam, I can’t keep doing this anymore. It seems like I don’t know you at all… and I know you don’t know me. Something has to give.” Adam, sensing a challenge, replied “I know we can fix this. Give me an opportunity to change things.” Adam quickly began juggling his schedule to be home more on the weekends, and most weeknights. When he was home he was always busy doing something. He picked up a few new hobbies he could do with his kids so there was always a project consuming the kitchen table every night. On the weekends, in hopes of being more active at home and setting a good example, he began training for a triathalon. Adam never felt better. He was home more with his kids, his health was in great shape, and he saw Beth more than he ever had.

One day Beth surprised Adam at the office and they went to lunch. Over lunch she announced her plans to get a divorce.

The Dysfunction

Adam’s fatal flaw was his greatest strength early on – his drive for perfection in everything he did. Like many of us, Adam’s self worth came from doing many things perfectly. In Adam’s mind, there is no room for anything less than 100%… anything less than perfect. Don’t be fooled; this is a sneaky dysfunction. It starts off as a strength and differentiator. We get recognized as “all stars,” “renaissance men / women,” and “high potentials,” but as life becomes more complicated, this particular dysfunction prevents us from setting healthy boundaries and saying “no” to demands that threaten the most important things in our lives. In the end, the dysfunction often costs us the most important relationships in our lives.

The Treatment

If you can relate to Adam, you aren’t alone. Some of the best people I know struggle with this particular dysfunction. That being said, there are some specific things that you can and need to do if you want to take the “dys” out of this version of “dysfunctional.”

  • Don’t be afraid to say “No” – I promise you won’t die.   Being able to say “No” is the key to regaining control.
  • The “good enough” principle is your friend – perfection is your enemy. If you cringed when you read this line, that’s a sign you are suffering from this particular dysfunction. Sometimes “good enough” is all you really need to do.
  • Don’t put yourself in the center of all of life’s demands. Prioritize life’s demands and order your priorities accordingly.
  • Being present at home is not about “doing” – it’s about “being.” Practice just being fully present with those close to you and simply listen.

With some effort and some intentionality, this is one dysfunction that even the greatest perfectionist can manage. But be wary. If you wait too long, it may be too late to fix what’s broken – how ironic.

 

Are you dysfunctional? – QUIZ

Are you dysfunctional? The answer is probably yes… we are all dysfunctional in our own unique ways. The better question is “what is your dysfunction costing you?” Way back in my clinical days, when we were assessing a patient we would always ask: “is this person in danger of hurting him/herself or in danger of hurting others?” If the answer was “yes,” we had to step in. As you consider your unique dysfunctions and what they might be costing you, consider this version of that very same question:

“Are my beliefs and actions costing me from having the life I want… and am I hurting others along the way?”

To that end, here is a work/life dysfunction quiz for you. Note how many times you answer “yes” to the statements below. Oh, and one more important point before you get started, be gut-level honest with yourself. After all, you’re the one who has to live with you!

Am I Dysfunctional? – QUIZ:

1. The number of hours I work each week equals or exceeds 80 hrs.

2. I’ve been fired for the same reason 3 times or more.

3. I never like to stay in the same place (either town and/or company) for more than 3 years. I’ve got to keep moving.

4. I don’t tell other people “no.” I have a difficult time setting boundaries and have a tendency to over commit.

5. I don’t trust anyone I work with… ever. People will eventually turn on you so it is best to always stay on guard.

6. I have a history of poor personal relationships because of my work getting in the way AND/OR I’ve been divorced 3 times or more.

7. My workplace reminds me of my family dysfunction growing up. I’m repeating unhealthy life patterns in the kinds of work environments I choose AND/OR I’m attracted to dysfunctional work environments.

8. I don’t trust myself and my decisions – ever. I’m always second-guessing myself.

9. I have a tendency to stay in one place, one role, and one relationship too long.

10. I have to win at all costs. If you’re not first, you’re last (thank you Ricky Bobby).

 

So, how did you do? Make a mental note of which one(s) you said “yes” to from the list above and what those particular dysfunctions might be costing you at home and in your career. In upcoming posts this month, we’ll dive deeper into these particular patterns and talk about the ways you can stop those dysfunctions in their collective tracks.

So back to our initial question: Are you dysfunctional? At the end of the day, the only question that really matters is: What are you prepared to do about it?

 

“Am I dysfunctional?”

“Am I dysfunctional?”  How many of us have asked ourselves that question? How many of us should ask ourselves that question?  Instead, we choose to avoid that question at every turn. After all, isn’t it a heck of a lot easier to blame everybody else rather than look at ourselves? Now, I’m not saying that others aren’t to blame from time to time.  I’m sure they are. But if you continue to relive the same unpleasant patterns over and over again in your life (Ex: you consistently have co-worker issues regardless of the job, you’ve never gotten along with any of your bosses throughout your career, you’ve been fired more than a few times, you have a long history of failed personal relationships, etc…) and you are the only common denominator, it’s time to look in the mirror. There comes a time when the answer lies within.

This month we are tackling this career and life derailer: “Am I dysfunctional?” We’ll take on, amongst other things, the following questions:

• Are you dysfunctional? How can you tell?

• What are the most common dysfunctions we suffer from?

• What do those dysfunctions cost us at work… and at home?

• What can we do to recognize those patterns and stop them before it’s too late?

Every week, I’ll kick off our conversation by addressing one of these big questions. Throughout the week I’ll collect and share stories, examples and other opinions as we dig in. By the end of the month, if we haven’t cured this dysfunction, we’ll do a darn good job treating it!  Write to me with your stories, examples or opinions on the subject. I promise to protect the innocent (and guilty!).

So, are you dysfunctional? What’s that costing you and are you willing to pay that price? Your choices are clear: continue to blame others and stay in your own personal version of “Groundhog Day” (a great movie if you haven’t seen it) – reliving the same patterns over and over again, or make the decision to break those patterns and live differently. The choice is simple and yet one of the scariest one’s we’ll ever make. The life you’ve always wanted lives on the other side. Just ask Bill Murray…