We’ve heard about how measles are spreading at rapid speed significantly influencing communities. In a similar way emotions are contagious.
In a study a group of nurses were asked to keep a daily log of their mood, work challenges and the overall emotional climate of their team. After three weeks, the researchers could significantly predict the mood of the entire team based on the positive or negative mood of any one nurse. The emotional contagion occurred when the moods were influenced by those outside of work and when the nurses only spent a few hours a day together. Overtime, a mood can spread through an organization and greatly influence the culture.
Another study showed that just witnessing another person who is stressed can cause stress to a person. That’s kind of scary given how many people are stressed these days. However, another study suggests that worrying about being stressed may be a real killer. In a study with thirty thousand participants people who had a lot of stress but didn’t worry about being stressed lived longer. Those who had a lot of stress and believed it was hurting them were over 40% more likely to die after eight years. Other studies suggest that we need some stress to support growth and seeing it as positive may help people to live longer. People who retire and don’t engage are more likely to live less.
Given emotional contagion, how can we accept stress as a part of life and realize that it can even support focusing and longevity? How can we more consciously create a positive mood for ourselves and those around us? A simple step is to be aware of your mood and to reflect on what you are grateful for.
Recognize that your mood is influencing others and see how you can be more open and positive.
An immense amount of energy is spent when we don’t trust a coworker or family member. When we can’t count on someone to follow through on their promises we experience higher levels of cortisol which limits our openness and relationships with others. We are less creative or open to new ideas. On the other hand, when we are interacting with someone we trust, there are high levels of the neurotransmitter oxytocin which creates more of a sense of bonding and openness.
It is valuable to pay attention to how we are trusting others. Do we have an habitual pattern of expecting the worst and mistrusting people immediately? It is useful to notice our level of trust and to work to create positive trusting environments. We can experiment with being more vulnerable and sharing more about ourselves. We can be explicit about expected norms or terms of engagement that we can reflect on from time to time and modify as necessary. We can ask for what we need and follow up.
Pay attention to your level of trust and take actions to elevate the environment of trust with those in your workplace and elsewhere.
A senior leadership team was surprised to see negative scores on an employee engagement survey. I conducted focus groups and confidential interviews to learn more. Like many organizations, the company had gone through significant changes and restructurings and this caused uncertainty. However, the thing that seemed to be at the core of the negative scores was the experience of a lack of inclusion or respect. People did not feel that their managers cared about them or listened and valued them. A climate of distrust had been created where people did not openly speak with one another.
The cost is high when people don’t feel valued. Usually they believe it is because of the way they look or their function or role. When people feel there will be retribution for speaking up even more energy is required to create an open and inclusive environment where people feel engaged.
Just as in any relationship, we need to take stalk of the climate we are creating. Are we respecting others and seeing them as individuals with hopes and needs? How you can create an open and inclusive environment? Begin by genuinely engaging in conversations to demonstrate interest and respect.
Years ago, I provided team coaching to an executive team of a manufacturing company based in Wisconsin. Our meetings were early mornings. I could predict the energy and openness of the team based on the score of the Green Bay Packer game the day before. If the team was winning, as it mostly did at the time, the leadership team members were more positive about creating new solutions and working together. If the team lost, we had to spend more time creating an open environment for the leadership team dialogue.
We all have experienced this phenomenon. A colleague shared that people seemed to have a skip in their walk and a friendly smile for one another in Charlottesville after UVA won the 2019 NCAA basketball championship. It seemed like the whole town shared this positive optimism. Not only is it Virginia’s first championship but the victory is particularly sweet after their close loss last year. The coach and players claim that the loss brought them closer together to achieve this win.
We not only need to check in to ensure that we are open and that those we interact with feel safe and open but it is important to ensure that we work to support a positive and open environment. After the UVA win, colleagues in workplaces seemed more open and forgiving of one another when they were fighting about an issue the day before. Again, a very different experience in the workplace than when there was tension during a previous rally in the city.
An abundance of research emphasizes the importance of creating an environment of openness, safety and trust.
Ask, how open is the environment? What can I do to support openness? Pay attention to the environment or context as much as the content or your words.
“What is he thinking? What a terrible idea! Does he see how he is going to hurt the staff and the company?” This is what Trish told me she was thinking as her boss shared a new idea that he thought would save money and address a big problem.
Trish had immediately told her boss why the idea would not work. She was surprised that he could not see the foolishness of his solution. Unfortunately, Trish was not successful in influencing her boss to consider other options and in addition, their relationship soured.
What happened? Trish immediately identified what she believed was wrong with her manager’s idea and began arguing her point of view. She did what we all do often. We focus on correcting or rejecting an idea before we ensure that we are listening fully and connecting with the person speaking. We need to manage ourselves and make sure we understand that the other person is saying and also identify how they are feeling by providing empathy. For example, Trish could have said, “You are concerned about the problem and believe this solution will address the challenge and address the budget deficit too.” Her boss would have felt heard and been more open to a conversation. Because he felt judged he became closed to a genuine conversation of exploring options and also became closed to Trish.
Notice your response when you hear ideas you don’t agree with (give yourself empathy) and stop and shift to being curious and open. Focus on listening more intently, share what you have heard, give empathy and be open to learning more.
Jenny excitedly told me how happy she was about a meeting she participated in. She was a bit intimidated by the caliber of participants and was a bit hesitant to speak up, particularly since she is an introvert. We have all had that feeling of hesitancy. She took the risk and suggested a unique idea. The ideas continued to flow from people and no one commented on hers. Then, a colleague said, “I would like to comment on Jenny’s brilliant suggestion….”
Her colleague did a number of things: she gave credit to Jenny for her idea by noting it and appreciated the contribution. Then she built on the idea. This supported Jenny in feeling a part of the group and it created an environment for all to contribute and take such risks.
Jenny actually wrote a note of thanks to her colleague who then confessed that she felt intimidated in the meeting and that she would always “have her back.” Trust was enhanced and the two are on their way to a friendship of supporting each other.
Can you take the simple step of noticing and calling out someone’s idea that contributes to the team and then appreciate such allies who are supportive?
You are having a conversation with a colleague and while you have intended to remain open you feel yourself becoming agitated. You know that you are not fully listening and note your judgement. What can you do?
You can notice your judgement and recognize that you are not open or in your oasis. You can share, “I realize I am feeling a bit agitated or stressed. You and this conversation are too important to me, and I want to be fully hearing you. Let’s take a short break and reconnect in 15 or 30 minutes.” Ideally, the other person will appreciate your concern for the relationship.
Research by John Gottman, a leading relationship expert, found that when couples were engaged in conflict and their cortisol levels became elevated that their conversations were not productive. He began to say that there were problems with the video equipment that was being used in the experiment. He found that after approximately a 15 minute break, the couple could resume in a positive state and were better equipped to address differences.
Notice when you are triggered and are in judgement with elevated cortisol levels. Take a break and cool down and become open. Notice the impact on your interactions.
Many of us these days are overwhelmed. Organizations are going through multiple changes. The technology keeps requiring more learning even when its purpose is to make things go more smoothly and efficiently. We feel we have more and more things to do to keep up.
I recall working with a group trying to solve a challenge and someone asked, “What if it were easy?” Everyone stopped. This option had not been considered. In fact, there was a simple solution and a lot of effort could be eliminated.
We are creatures of habit and it is hard to stop doing things that we think “should” be done. When I ask teams to consider what to stop doing, there are often blank faces. Of course, sometimes people are worried about job security and other times we don’t consider other options. One team I worked with was able to reduce over 50 major projects the company was working on down to six. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief at the end of the meeting. The leadership team was aligned and had a process to monitor 6 initiatives. They had more confidence and increased market share after making it easier.
A small business owner was spending a lot of time and money trying to market the company’s offerings. They had multiple ways of marketing. When they considered how to make it easy, they realized that most of their work was coming from referrals. By focusing on communicating with a small number of people, they saved time and energy and had greater results. In fact, it became easy.
Ask yourself, “Am I willing for it to be easy?” Then expect an easier option. Examine your current “should” and look for what you can reduce or change to make things easier.
It is easy to ask questions of people without waiting for a response. I know I have done this when I am in a hurry. “Hi. How are you? How is your ill mother? Are you traveling this holiday?” Sometimes we are asking questions just as a way of saying hello as we are passing by without really looking for a response. However, we need to be aware of our impact and provide space for a response.
Mary told me that a client “sucks the energy out of the room.” When I inquired further, it became clear that her client asked many questions without pausing to really listen. Mary feels that the client does not really care about her and she braces herself when interacting with the client. I suspect that her client is not aware of the lack of real connection. Perhaps she is genuinely interested but feels rushed inside and has not learned to slow down and give Mary full attention.
Notice your pattern. Do you pepper people with questions without leaving space for a response or are you genuinely interested and give people attention to hear their response?
To grow the creativity and curiosity muscle it is useful to ask questions and then listen fully. Sarah practices this regularly. When she meets someone new she is really interested in learning more about them and their background. She asks many questions. “Where did you grow up?” “What do you do for fun?” “What kind of challenges have you faced?” “What do you hope to accomplish?” “What holds you back?” “What supports you?” After a conversation with Sarah, the other person feels connected with her and often learns something about themselves as they reflect and share. Sarah often acquires a new friend. Because of her curiosity and the ability to give space for a person to speak, people are often vulnerable, share themselves, and experience a sense of connection.
It takes intention and skill to be open-minded and curious about another person and to ask questions where the answers are not known. Then it takes intention to engage by fully listening.
When we ask questions in which we are curious and don’t know the answers a sense of space is created for discovery and possibilities.
I encourage you to consciously try asking questions where you don’t know the answers. Be open and curious to learn and see what evolves and what you discover. Enjoy the process too.