Compliments of sofieskein via Flickr

In an HBR blog post, Schwartz defines the phenomenon of negative emotional contagion at work. Specifically, he suggests that one bad employee can pollute the entire office culture. Manager mood is especially significant because “Leaders, by virtue of their authority, exert a disproportionate impact on the mood of those they supervise.”

From a productivity standpoint, negative seeds have already wreaked havoc. E.g., despite the fact you’ve cleaned mud off your windshield, it’s difficult to dispute that you were splattered. I’ve alluded to this unseemly behavior in previous postings: see How to spot a snitch, and Signs of sabotage. On a personal note, I’ve witnessed people fired for acting as the surreptitious town crier – traveling from office to office, attempting to dig the professional graves of their coworkers (while at the same time enhancing their own stature). I think there must be a sadistic streak running through souls who attempt clandestine bullying on the company’s dime.

Negative ideas act as a “sleepers” within our psyches – subsequently triggered whenever we think of the person who was so smeared. From Schwartz’ description of an executive: “The negative emotions I ‘caught’ temporarily overwhelmed my capacity to assess the facts at hand.” The more transparent leaders display their subsequent disdain through negative non-verbals. Weasels at once waste company time (theirs, and that of other people), while destroying camaraderie and the collective gestalt. They try to introduce reasonable doubt into the minds of those around them.

Leaders must safeguard their workplace against insurgence. Consider why troublemakers are trying to sway you in the first place. Do they get their jollies out of throwing stones, do they think you need help with your job, or are they simply trying to enhance their position? Maybe they don’t have enough to do, in which case spearheading smear campaigns is how they’ve chosen to fill their time. Whatever the reason, they have overstepped the bounds of office decency.

As a manager, don’t allow yourself to be influenced by office charlatans. The last thing you want is a locked box corridor, in which people sit with closed doors, afraid to converse with their teammates. As Schwartz sagely reminds us,…negative emotions spread fast, and they’re highly toxic.”

The following is advice for those who manufacture office mayhem, and, for their recipients:

  • Weasels don’t have your best interests at heart. If you’re on the receiving end of the latest news flash, ask yourself “If the tables were turned, is this how I would want to be treated?”
  • Bearers of bad news perceive that presenting indictments is a fast-track to obtaining goodies. Work against being perceived as a pet owner and a collector of sycophantic slime balls.
  • Be suspect of the source – what is an adult’s motivation for tattling on their compatriots? If the behavior is difficult to imagine apart from the playground, perhaps it ought not to be happening in your firm.
  • Choose to focus on the most positive aspect in any circumstance, and try to promote this contagion within your department. You will find that people readily take the ball and run with it.   

Related link: Bullying is a confidence game

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All viewpoints expressed by Jackie Gilbert are her own, and not of her employer.

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