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!



Be thankful

Rx3The last few months we’ve tackled the dysfunction of “negativity.” As we conclude this series and start a new dysfunction (and year for that matter), I can’t think of a more appropriate time for the prescription. There is perhaps no better antidote to negativity than healthy and regular doses of “thankfulness.” Seems too simple, huh? Let me explain.

“People’s brains have a ‘negativity bias’”

In recent WSJ article on smarter ways to discipline children, a quote from one of the experts jumped out at me. Alan E. Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center was quoted as saying, “People’s brains have a ‘negativity bias’.” His point was simple yet powerful. Research on parenting has consistently shown that parents have a natural tendency to give “negative feedback” – feedback on what their kids are doing poorly or simply not doing. Shockingly, this doesn’t work if the goal is to change a child’s behavior. What has shown to be effective in changing a child’s behavior is to give positive feedback – reaffirming feedback on what was done well – at a ratio of three or four positives to every one negative (3 or 4 to 1). In other words, for every piece of negative feedback you give a child, if you want it to take, you need to be filling the tank three or four times with positive feedback. Of course that’s easier said than done. What does this have to do with overcoming negativity in general? The particularly cool aspect of this research is how shockingly consistent it is with ever other context we find ourselves in throughout life. John Gottman’s research on marriage has shown that in the healthiest marriages, couples give each other feedback in a ratio of five positives to every one negative (5 to 1). In studying effective managers, Barbara Frederickson found that, drum roll, the best and most effective managers give feedback to direct reports at a ratio of five positive to every one negative (5 to 1). The good news for us is that the patterns and the solutions are the same in all aspects of our lives. The challenge is to ignore that darn voice in our head that wants to constantly point out what’s wrong with others… and ourselves for that matter.

Who to thank

Alright. So you are ready to fill others’ tanks with positivity by thanking them for what they have done for you over the last year. But who should you thank? Consider the following list:

  •  Mentors – mentors are a great place to start. Those individuals that have provided counsel, support and simply an ear when you needed to be heard qualify as mentors. And don’t confine yourself to the mentors that impacted you directly over the last twelve months. Many mentors plant seeds that come to fruition years later. Thank mentors of years-gone-by as well.
  • Helpers – I have a long list of the many dysfunctions this global economy has produced over the last four years. Near the top of the list is the near complete absence of “thank you’s” to those individuals that help us get our job done. Examples include direct reports, colleagues or simply the folks at the local copy center that without them, things might have gone terribly wrong. “Helpers” need to be thanked.
  • Refers and Recommenders – Odds are, someone (or multiple “someones”) recommended you for something positive this past year. Maybe they recommended you for a job, a promotion or an opportunity. In the craziness of just trying to get it done, we often forget that if it wasn’t for these people, we wouldn’t have had the opportunities that we had. These folks need HUGE “thank-you’s.”
  • Family and Friends – Those closest to us that have supported us along the way and offered unconditional love and support are invaluable to us in work and life. They need “thank you’s” just as much as everyone else. We often overlook them because they are “family.” Don’t. Fill their tanks just like you would anyone else.


The right way to say “Thank You”


Now that you’ve got your list, how do you say “thank you” the right way? There are so many ways to thank another person. Let me give you a mini-list based on ease and impact. In other words, I’m going to start with the easiest and naturally the lowest impact and work my way to the hum-dingers of “thank you’s” for that special person who, to quote cousin Eddie from the movie Christmas Vacation, you want to do “somethin’ real nice.”

Thank You E-mail – Thank you e-mails can be great ways to capture your thoughts about how much someone has impacted you and your corresponding level of appreciation for them. The benefit of this approach is that it takes five minutes or less, you can do it anytime and they can read it quickly at a time that is convenient for them. Great for those individuals who may not have made a singularly huge impact on your life and career over the year but did many of the little things along the way.

Ease of effort: Low

Impact: Low


Thank You Voicemail – Often overlooked, a wonderful thank you voicemail can go further than a thank you e-mail. Why? For two reasons: First, the other person can hear the sincerity in your voice making the message more personal and impactful. Second, voicemail “thank you’s” are rarely done resulting in a higher probability that it is remembered and kept.

Ease of effort: Low

Impact: Medium


Thank You Note (Handwritten) – Old school, but still one of the very best ways to thank anyone. It is personal, it shows effort and most of all, hand-written thank you notes are rarely done anymore. Notice offices and desks as you walk by. You’ll see people now keep every single thank you note that they receive and proudly display them. The payoff for sending a handwritten thank you note short-term and long-term is huge. Now, you just have to remember how to use that thing… what’s it called again? Oh yeah: a pen.

Ease of effort: Medium

Impact: High


sweetcakeThank You Gift – Ranging from a small thoughtful gift to taking someone out to dinner, giving a token of thank you can be particularly appropriate and impactful for those individuals who did something big that resulted in you benefiting significantly over the last year (Ex: a new job, winning a sale, a promotion, saving you from utter catastrophe, etc…). It is powerful and memorable. It can also be dangerous if not done just right. Two warnings on this approach: First, be careful not to get carried away on the value of the gift resulting in the recipient feeling uncomfortable. If the gift seems extravagant, it may feel less like a thank you to the recipient and more like a pay-off (this is particularly dangerous if the recipient is your boss). Second, be careful not to give something that isn’t actually a reward to the recipient but more of a punishment. In other words, don’t require them to do something that takes time and effort to get the gift. Examples to be careful of are: tickets to events (with you of course), dinner, an invitation to your house, etc… For busy people, these can all be punishments. Consider the person’s time and ability to “receive” your gift. With that being said, giving a “gift” can be a particularly powerful way to say “thank you” for those individuals who made your year.

Ease of effort: High

Impact: High

There are few ways better to beat back negativity than by thanking others. Get to it and I promise, not only will you feel better, but you’ll find you’ll be strengthening some of the most important relationships in your personal and professional lives. Oh, and for that voice in your head that says negative stuff about you, “thank him” by sending him on a permanent vacation to some place far, far away. I promise you won’t miss him.

My workplace is negative

I get it. The last several years have been tough. “Do more with less… there won’t be any raises this year… you are lucky to have a job… we may have to close our doors tomorrow…” Working day-in and day-out under these conditions can get to anyone. A therapist colleague told me a story that I think captures this sentiment perfectly. Several years ago he had a client who was in a highly toxic, negative and abusive relationship.  No matter what he did, he couldn’t get her to change her perspective.  One day he finally came to a realization. Here’s what he told her, “I’m a very healthy person. And yet, if I were in the relationship you are in 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, I would be just as broken-down, lost and as negative as you are.” Workplace negativity can get to us. To that point, here was a question I received over the past week from a reader that I think sums up many of our collective feelings of frustration at the office:

Where we work, the morale is terrible. Everyone is overworked, frustrated with our demanding customers and generally burned out. As a result, we are handling stress in negative and unhealthy ways. What specific tools can we use to change the negative and unhealthy ways we are handling stress? For example, I would like to put a punching bag in the back so we can hit it as a way to vent and then hopefully go about our business a bit happier.

To feel so stressed and frustrated that the idea of hitting something sounds like the perfect cure truly says it all. And to the reader’s question, what is the right solution? Is a punching bag in the back room the answer or is it something else? While a punching bag may sufficiently empty out the negativity from our veins, it doesn’t resolve the core issue. Negativity has infected our workplaces and unless treated, no amount of punching bags are going to fix the problem.

Stomping Out Negativity At Work

Below are a few different treatment options for eliminating negativity at work. Feel free to take them in combination. Daily doses are recommended.

  • Leadership needs to declare war. A critical starting place for eliminating negativity at work is for leadership to take a stand and declare all-out war against any forms of negativity at work. This can be the boss or a team decision. Regardless, those who lead need to announce that negativity is no longer welcome and they must be prepared to confront it at every turn. What does this mean? I’ve seen leaders who are serious about fighting negativity send an employee home when they become “infected.”
  • Make it a game. A second treatment option is to turn the negative moments at work into positive events by reframing them. In other words, make it a game. For example, I worked with an insurance company several years ago that had developed an interesting way to combat negativity at work. During the week, customer service reps would take a beating with disgruntled customers. At the end of each week, reps would meet and share their most difficult customer interactions. Whoever had the most difficult or challenging encounter won the “crazy customer” trophy. A huge oversized trophy, the “crazy customer” trophy would live at the desk of the rep who won it until the next week when more stories were shared. Games and fun competition can take a negative event and create a more playful team experience.
  • Throw out all the bad apples. Sometimes negative work environments are the product of a bad apple – an employee who is so negative he / she is poisoning everyone else. If there is a bad apple coworker in your midst, inviting them to leave is a necessary first step.

There you have it – strategies for eliminating negativity at work. Feel free to combine any of the above remedies. Take regularly and often.

Of course, if nothing else works throw up the bag in the back and wear it out. Who knows? You might find you have a future in the ring.


Has your negativity gone too far?

What are the signs your negativity has tipped too far? There are several warning signs that I plan on sharing, but before I do, I had a negativity moment over the weekend that has stuck with me. On Saturday morning, I was in the drive thru line at McDonald’s, picking up breakfast for my family when it happened. The car in front of me pulled forward so, naturally, I inched my car ahead to take the now available spot. About the same time I made my move, out of the corner of my eye I noticed an older couple walk out of the restaurant and step off the curb about twenty feet away from me. Even though there was some distance between us, the woman was apparently quite irritated with me for not seeing them sooner and for continuing to move my car into position. After my car did finally come to rest in the drive thru line, she walked in front of my car, proceeded to yell at me and then hit the hood of my old Ford Explorer with her fist. Stunned, I didn’t know what to do. She continued to yell at me incomprehensibly as she passed my Ford and proceeded to her car across the parking lot. I finally snapped out of my fog and rolled down my window to hear what she was trying to say. After she was done, I said to her, “ma’am, you hit the hood of my car. That was not nice.”(I know… I’m so tough) She blasted back at me, “you need to stop when people are crossing the road!” Meanwhile, as all of this was transpiring, her husband calmly left his angry spouse and walked behind my car, crossed the parking lot and sat down in the passenger seat of their car waiting for her to finish. She finally got in her car, backed out quickly and slammed on the brakes as she ironically almost hit an approaching car.

Why do I share this story with you? Simple. While I did not drop to her level of yelling, screaming and hitting of cars, I wanted to. For a large part of the day on Saturday, I replayed the event in my mind adding in the addition of several “perfect” responses ranging from me hitting the hood of her car to see how she liked it to deflating her logic by reminding her that a parking lot is not a road and her assault on my vehicle was police worthy. That’s the problem with negativity. It is contagious. We have a natural tendency to “match levels” and default to where the other person is at. And it can linger with us for hours (if not days) later. So what might be signs that you are like the car assailant in my story? Consider the following signs:

Signs You May Be Negative

  •  Are you “harshing other people’s mellow?”  Kudos to my cool wife for actually using this phrase in conversation yesterday. The reason? She was dreading the prospect of spending time with a friend of hers because of the constant negativity that oozes from their pores. You may be “harshing other people’s mellow” if you’ve either noticed a drop-off of invites from others or, more to the point, someone has actually told you your negativity is tough to take.
  • Are you in a negative profession?  Not all professions are created a like. There are some that naturally default to a “glass half empty” view of humanity and the world. For example, many roles in the legal profession, credit / commercial lending, finance, compliance and even H.R. often assume that people will screw you over if you don’t watch them close. I had a student once tell me that when she worked in commercial credit (commercial lending for businesses), she was told by coworkers to get married as quickly as possible or she would become so jaded by the profession that she would never trust anyone enough to ever think about getting married not to mention the constant negativity she was likely to bring to every date. If you find yourself in one of these professions, the burden that is on you is to leave the negativity at the office. Trust me, your kids and spouse don’t want to be constantly “caught” doing something incorrect and accused of lying, cheating, or general deception at every turn. Definitely not a good strategy.
  • Do you give more negative feedback to others than positive? Whether we are talking about work or at home, the research is consistent. You should be giving about five times MORE positive feedback than you do negative (5:1 ratio). More to come on the research later this month, but needless to say, if your negative feedback is exceeding your positive feedback, you’re about to lose listeners (if you haven’t already). People can only take so much.
  • In a typical interaction, is the first thing out of your mouth a complaint? Think back to your casual conversations. Are you typically working in a complaint in just about every conversation? Not sure? How about this more specific question: When was the last time you complained at a restaurant? If you can’t remember, then you are probably good to go. If, however, you immediately thought to yourself, “Do you mean about the service, the food quality or where I was sitting? It would be different levels of frequency for each.” If you have enough “data” to categorize them into different buckets, the answer and my point is clear.


Not sure if you are “harshing other people’s mellow?” The first step in any self-awareness process is to notice. Spend some time over the next week just noticing your interactions with others. And as part of noticing how you might be interacting, be careful not to judge yourself. In other words, don’t turn your own negativity against you. Simply notice judgment free. The goal is to gauge if this has become a severe problem that may bring heavy costs or if you are just suffering from the occasional bad day.

Next up, we will be tackling what you can do at work and at home to keep negativity in check. In the meantime, do me one favor: avoid slamming your fist onto the hood of someone else’s car. Trust me. It won’t make you feel better. At least I don’t think so…


“I’m negative”

negative_graphic256Are you suffering from a severe case of negativity? Are you a “glass half empty” kinda person? Do people generally tell you that you are a total “buzz-kill” to be around? If the answer to those questions is “yes,” then this month is for you. And unlike many past dysfunctions we’ve taken on, negativity is a different type of dysfunction for many reasons. First, with most traditional workplace dysfunctions, the problem is often someone else (my boss, my coworker, my company, etc…). With negativity, the problem lies squarely in the mirror. Second, no one is immune from this particular dysfunction. Whether it’s getting passed over for a promotion or the general feeling that nothing we do is ever “good enough,” we all go through bouts of negativity. The distinction between healthy levels of negativity and dysfunctional levels of negativity is directly tied to the length in which you stay stuck in that nasty place. Do you pull yourself out quickly or do you make yourself comfortable and hang out in the land of discontent for months on end? Visiting for a night is fine. Staying for an extended period is catastrophic.

Negativity kills

You may be saying to yourself, “Brandon, you make this out to be such a big deal. Is this really all that bad? After all, some people view my negativity as a good thing. They see me as a realist.” If that’s you, here’s my answer for you: you’re kidding yourself. Negativity kills. It kills relationships with direct reports, it kills relationships with coworkers, it kills relationships with the boss and most importantly, it kills relationships at home (spouse and children). But we kid ourselves and don’t see negativity for what it is. Individuals that bring persistently high levels of negativity to their job and life often veil it under the guise of being a “critical thinker.” While focused doses of “critical” can be necessary and productive, unbridled criticism and negativity breeds disaster. Don’t believe me? Stay tuned. I’m bringin’ the research. From Bob Sutton at Stanford and his research on effective / ineffective managers, to the folks at the Gottman Institute studying marriage, negativity comes with heavy costs.

On tap for this month

This month we will be tackling negativity. Amongst others, some of our topics will include:

  • Some of the greatest triggers of negativity in our lives (common negativity-producing occupations, scenarios, and events)
  • Signs your negativity has tipped from normal levels to highly destructive / nuclear
  • Ways to counter negativity at work
  • Ways to counter negativity at home


At the end of the month, I’ve got two goals for each of us (myself included):

  1. For each of us to find ways to manage our negativity more effectively.
  2. For each of us to come out feeling more thankful of what we have than when we started the month. Not a bad tie into November 22 (Thanksgiving) if I do say so myself.

Before we get started, you’ll need the following materials: a glass half filled with water, a mirror, and a picture of the one’s you love. Once you’ve got ‘em, you’re ready to begin. Further instructions on their way…