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!



4 things parents can teach every leader

riding_bikeParenting is hard.  And hard things teach lessons.  Being a parent has taught me more about leadership than any leadership roles I’ve held or books that I’ve read.  But before I dive into some of those lessons, let me open with some parenting background on me.  Consider following nuggets straight out of my parenting resume:

  • I am a parent of three children (13 year old girl, 10 year old boy, 8 year old boy)
  • My wife and I have been married 16 years and do this parenting thing together as a team
  • During my time as a parent, I have experienced the following thoughts, feelings and emotions: exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger, determination, pride, joy, happiness and love
  • No one gave me a handbook on this stuff (my resume might read something like this: “Designed, developed and implemented custom parenting system resulting in no one getting killed or kicked out of school.”)

Given my unique (or not so unique) experiences, below are four things I’ve learned as a parent that I think every leader worth their salt should know and practice:

1. Be tough on the behaviors but not the person.

This is not a new concept.  Take any Management 1.0 class, and you’ll likely find this statement on page 1.  But what does this really mean?  To me as a parent, it means a thousand kisses, hugs and “I love you’s” spread throughout the day and week.  But affection alone is not enough if your goal is to raise fully formed adults.  It also means being tough on behaviors.  It is a rare day in my house that I’m not lecturing one of my kids on some behavioral misstep.  From remembering to bring home their homework, to being respectful to their mother, the list goes on.  Interestingly enough, if you want to have a narcissist for a child, do the opposite.  A recent study of narcissism in children found that parents who had narcissistic children, gave little affection.  Rather, they filled that void by telling the child how great he or she is all of the time.  In other words, they are soft on behaviors and tough on the person.  No thank you.

2. Clarity is king.

Ever tell a 4 year old to go clean his or her room?  In the infamous words of Dr. Phil, “How did that work for you?”  The story ends the same way every time.  The parent walks into the room a short time later only to discover the room still looks as if a bomb had gone off.  Standing in the middle of the seemingly-untouched chaos is a smiling 4 year old announcing proudly that they cleaned their room.  Clearly there was a miscommunication.  In the workplace, the number one dysfunction I see with leaders is something that I learned as a parent all-too-well.  If you aren’t clear in your expectations, there is no telling what you are going to get.  At home and at work, I try to practice a version of the military’s “Commander’s Intent.”  The goal is to clearly articulate the “What,” the “When,” the “Why,” and, in the case of a less-than-fully-competent report (or child), the “How” of every mission.  At my house, it would look like this:

Me: “Aaron (my 8 year old), you need to get your shoes on right now.  The bus comes in 10 minutes.  If you don’t have your shoes on when the bus comes, your mom will have to drive you to school.  That will cost you $5 for her services.  Do you want to pay mom $5?”

Me: (Pause)

Aaron: “No sir.”

Me: “Good.  Get your shoes on and let us know if you need any help.”

And when in doubt, I stop and ask whoever I am speaking to, to repeat what I just said.  In the workplace, I take the same approach with my coaching clients.  After all, in the case of my clients, if they are unclear on the “what,” “when,” “why” and “how,” it could cost them their job.  It’s all about clarity.

3. It is not a democracy.

In our house, we have the mantra “decision makers pay.”  My kids know that the “leadership team” is my wife and me. “And how does one join the leadership team?” my 13 year old daughter slyly asks.  “$1,000 a month is the on-going fee for membership,” I reply.  And only when one becomes a member of the leadership team are they allowed to make decisions that impact the family.  In other words, Noah (my 10 year old) can’t have whatever he wants for dinner just because he doesn’t like fish.  Or Abby can’t complain about riding the bus one morning because her mom didn’t have time to take her.  In addition, only members of the leadership team are allowed to “edit” others in the household.   Our children are not allowed to edit us.  Rather, my kids’ job is to author and our job is to edit.  Talk to any leader in any company and they’ll tell you that their best direct reports author and bring things to them to edit.  Their worst direct reports sit back and either complain or wait to be told what to do.  I have found that I can’t lead at home or at work if I’m trying to make everyone happy.  The goal is not happiness.  The goal is growth.

4. Failure is a great teacher. 

I was with an executive coaching client last week reviewing his feedback from his team.  One piece of feedback that he received stood out from all of the rest.  It went something like this, “Sam is the best leader I’ve ever had the privilege to work for.  I only have one thing I wish he would change.  I wish he would let us occasionally fail so we could learn on our own.”  In my life, failure has been a great teacher.  It has taught me resilience, self-confidence, initiative, resourcefulness and perseverance.  And yet, intentionally watching others that you care about fail and suffer all of the consequences of that failure is one of the most difficult gifts any parent (or leader for that matter) can give.

As a mentor of mine once said to me:

“All day long we work with adults.  But don’t be mistaken.  They aren’t really adults.  They are secretly children stuck at various stages of development in adult bodies.”

If you look at it that way, maybe the connection between parenting and leadership isn’t that tenuous after all.

Then again, what do I know.


How to run a dysfunction-free meeting

meeting_outJohn’s meetings were some of the most painful I had ever experienced.  Every week John would call a meeting with his senior leadership team (and I use that term loosely) in an effort to keep them updated, aligned and focused on what needed to get done.  One by one, the members of his senior leadership team, all eight of them, would file into the room.  They would find their seats, get settled and then proceed to turn their brains off.  For the next hour, John would proclaim, ponder, question, entertain, inquire and generally try any approach he could think of in hopes of engaging them in dialogue.  Typically all John would elicit would be the occasional trail of drool out of the corner of an attendee’s mouth.  It was like trying to lead a meeting of workplace zombies.  At the end of the hour, each individual would gather their things and quietly leave the room, never uttering a word to John or to each other.   Once back in their respective domains, they would proceed to tell their teams to not collaborate with the other departments and only to do what he or she instructed.  Leadership fail.  

John’s dysfunctional leadership team meetings are simply one example of how dysfunction can rear it’s ugly heads in meetings.  From attendee disengagement to the rogue emotional vampire, from the overly critical team member to individuals who say one thing and do something entirely different when they leave the room, meeting dysfunction can take so many messy forms.  So how do you ensure a “dysfunction-free” meeting?  I recommend the following prescription.  Take daily:

know_the_rules1.  Set meeting ground rules.  Great meetings operate on a clear set of ground rules set by the leader.  These ground rules set the expectations on what the leader wants to see (and doesn’t want to see) during each and every meeting.  If you haven’t already established meeting ground rules for your team, I recommend starting off your next meeting by facilitating a discussion on what the meeting ground rules should be for the group.  Once agreed, formalize those ground rules in some way (PowerPoint slide, poster, flipchart page, etc…) that allows you to bring those same ground rules back at the beginning of each and every meeting as a reminder on how to operate.  This will make policing bad behavior a heck of a lot easier.  When I facilitate this discussion with leadership teams, I have a few favorites I always try to work into the discussion.  Consider these to get you started:

  • Silence = Acceptance – if you don’t say anything during the meeting it indicates that you agree with everything being said.
  • Be Authors, Not Editors – always provide a solution if you critique an idea or an individual.  The world has plenty of critics already.
  • Las Vegas Rules Apply – what is said in the room during meetings, stays in the room.
  • Don’t Try to Say It Perfectly – just spit it out.  I have seen too many great ideas and valid opinions are held back because participants try to say it perfectly at just the right time.  Just say it.
  • Leave as One Team – Debate in the meeting but support each other when you leave the room.

meetings_timekeeper2.  Assign a timekeeper.  This can be your job as the leader or you can delegate the role.  The point is to assign someone the task of watching the clock to ensure the meeting finishes on time and to vocally attend to discussions that may have gone off topic.  This role is vitally important.  No meeting should ever go over its allotted time without the full consent of all participants in attendance.  This is necessary to ensure efficiency, effectiveness and your credibility as a leader.  This person also needs to be ready to confront bad behavior.  Meetings are a feeding frenzy for emotional vampires.  They’ll suck and suck until all the energy in the room is gone and the meeting is significantly derailed.  The timekeeper needs to be armed with the following phrase, “Let’s call a quick time out.  It appears our discussion is going down a different path from the agenda.  We need to decide if this is the path we want to go down or if we need to table this for a later discussion.”  This brings me to my final meeting inoculation against dysfunction…

3.  Establish a “parking lot” for ideas or topics that emerge but don’t fit with the purpose of the meeting.  A common meeting technique, declare a space (whiteboard, flipchart, blank document, etc…) that’s sole purpose is to capture valuable discussions that need to continue but DO NOT need to continue during the current meeting.  Examples would include:

  • Topics that only pertain to a small portion of the players in the room
  • Ideas that are in the early stages and are not ready to present to the group in a way that is valuable and productive (Ex: opinions vs. evidence and data)
  • A strongly held opinion that does not fall within the agenda and/or is a poor use of the group’s time (Ex: “And since we are on the topic of celebrating our unit’s success, I have a particular opinion on the food we should order for those events.  The stuffed mushrooms we had last time were horrendous.”)

Some of you may look at my list above and label it “too corporate.”  After all, phrases like “parking lot” don’t really live outside of corporate-speak, right?  If that’s you, you’re the non-traditional type.  You just gotta go against the grain.  Here is a list of alternative medicines for curing meeting dysfunction that may fit you better.  However, like any alternative medicines, the evidence and success rates are inconclusive.  Take at your own risk:

  • Standing meetings – in an effort to reduce meeting times and to keep meetings moving more quickly, a growing technique employed by some managers is to enforce a “no-chairs” meeting.  Applied to the proper meeting purpose, this can be a nice way to reinforce the importance of brevity and using the group’s time efficiently.  However, if something needs debate and discussion, you may have some cranky attendees on your hands.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing “yoga pose” meetings.  Hold downward facing dog until the discussion is over.  Now that’s incentive to hurry up.
  • long-hoursWalking meetings – A new growing trend, this “walking meeting” is exactly that.  Meeting attendees walk with the meeting leader around “campus” while they chat.  This has emerged in an effort to fight the latest corporate disease of the day: “sitting disease.”  Walking, talking, deciding… now all we need is to rub our tummies at the same time and we are complete.
  • Over sized clocks in all meeting rooms – One organization put in place large clocks (and I mean LARGE) in all meeting rooms in an effort to reinforce the importance of keeping things moving.  Large and loud, they definitely made a point.  Was it the right one?  Hmm…

People’s time is important.  It is our job to honor it.  Follow the above criteria and you are set up for a more efficient and effective meeting.  And one more thing, avoid bringing or encouraging snacks in meetings.  I’ve attended meetings with plates of brownies, homemade cookies, cheese dip, cute little dainty sandwiches, etc…  Meetings are not supposed to be trips to Ryan’s Steakhouse.  They are meetings.  Not to mention, after several of these buffet meetings, “walking meetings” will soon be in your future whether you like it or not.  Trust me.


“Death by meetings”

meetings_graphic317Manuel stared blankly at his calendar.  It was a Wednesday, the middle day of the week in the middle of a typical month.  9:00am – meeting, 10:00am – meeting, 11:00am – meeting, 12:00pm –working lunch meeting, 1:00pm meeting, etc…  It was 8:37am and shortly Manuel was going to start another day that comprised of nothing but meetings.  According to his calendar, from 9:00am until 6:00pm he was in meetings without one break.  At this realization of another day lost and out of his control, Manuel should feel some level of anger or resentment but he numbed himself to that anger long ago.  As one of a handful of Directors of Information Technology at a University, Manuel had seen his role become more and more critical over the last 5 years.  Budget cuts combined with massive change in higher education made the need for increasingly better technology platforms a must.  On top of it all, it was a University.  Administration needed to be bought in – unanimously.  Faculty needed to be bought in – unanimously.  Staff and students didn’t seem to have much say, but they needed to be involved in the conversation anyway.  As a result, there were meetings.  Lots and lots of meetings.  One week Manuel estimated he spent over 42 hours in meetings This didn’t include all of his time spent preparing for the meetings and following up after meetings.  Manuel’s real work day was beginning to look more and more like one of his early IT jobs, 6:00pm to 12:00am.  If that wasn’t bad enough Manuel had a team of four managers and 30 support staff under them.  The only time he could coach and develop them was after 6:00pm.  That meant that they were staying late at work, away from their families, longer than should be necessary.  Family.  Manuel tried not to think of family this early in the week.  He needed to at least hold out until Thursday afternoon to let himself go there in his mind.  He bit his lip in an effort to distract himself.  His calendar came back into focus and Manuel suited up for another wasted day filled with meetings.

Meetings own a special place in my workplace dysfunction Hall of Fame.  They are the flagship exhibit at the end of the hallway set aside for “most common workplace dysfunctions that shouldn’t exist.”  Think of it as the workplace equivalent of the measles.  There are simple antidotes and inoculations, and yet, almost every organization is guilty of this pervasive dysfunction.  There is no damn good reason for it.  Unlike a dysfunctional boss or an unhealthy culture, meetings can be easily reworked, restructured and managed to prevent dysfunction.  This month, I’m loading you up with all of the booster shots, vitamins and antibiotics you can handle.  We’ll make sure we hit the following:

  • What’s the purpose or objective?  If you can’t articulate one, you shouldn’t call one.
  • Who should attend?  Meetings are NOT a party.  More is not merrier.
  • How long should the meeting be?  Meetings shouldn’t be marathons.
  • What are the ground rules for the meeting?  Gotta keep those emotional vampires in check.
  • What’s that post-meeting hygiene?  How are you gonna ensure that stuff actually gets done?

Simple enough, but I have yet to have attended a meeting run so well that I could check off all of those boxes.  Ridiculous.  We’re gonna change that starting today.  Just imagine living a world where meetings were all done right.  No wasted time.  No soap-boxing.  No pointless blather.  No fuzziness on why you’re there and what you need to do.  No politics.  No dysfunction.  I know, I know.  It sounds too good to be true.  But what option do we have?  Death by meetings?  No thank you.  

Here’s a teaser on what we’ll be covering this month.  Have a taste: