Well, it happens like clockwork – school starts and about 3 weeks later, my daughter ends up at the doctor’s office. Then the next question is: have you gotten your flu shot yet? (If not, the billboards and road signs will certainly get your attention.) Oh yes, it’s that time of year!
Today, we are all well aware of the infectious diseases that can spread quickly from person-to-person in epidemic fashion that capture media attention – the flu, probably the most common and widespread. Dr. Kelly McGonigal in her book The Willpower Instinct talks about another type of epidemic that affects the work place year round: social epidemics. She concludes that “research from the fields of psychology, marketing, and medicine reveals that our individual choices are powerfully shaped by what other people think, want, and do – and what we think they want us to do.” Nicholas Christakis at Harvard Medical School and James Fowler at the University of California, San Diego studied residents of Framingham, Massachusetts and other communities for phenomena such as obesity, drinking, cigarette use – both “use of” (starting a new behavior) and the “ability to quit” (stopping a negative behavior) and concluded that “both bad habits and positive change can spread from person to person like germs, and nobody is immune.”
She suggests that “humans are hardwired to connect with others, and our brains have adapted a nifty way to make sure we do” – specialized brain cells called mirror neurons. These neurons have the sole purpose of keeping track of what other people are thinking, feeling and doing – instinctual ability to be empathetic to another person’s event and sympathize, as well as “catch” the other person’s bad diseases. In the workplace, we begin to see how one person’s bad mood, negative emotions or perspective can be caught by the next co-worker and go viral. Sound familiar?
However, the opposite is also true. If we can “catch” irritability and pessimism, we can also “catch” optimism, happiness, self control and engagement by simply being around those who exhibit those behaviors. So as a leader, how can you start a positive epidemic in your work area?
1. Examine your own tendencies. What type of word choices do you use to describe problems or negative situations? How often do you see the cup half empty instead of half full? Do you see negative events as temporary and isolated or widespread and infectious? Strive to be self aware and practice re-framing your responses in the positive. Describe what you can control and what you can do in each situation and how certain, specific circumstances have caused the event to occur. Strive for balance – not overly pessimistic or naively optimistic.
2. Boost your immune system. Spend time with individuals who are engaged in their work and have a positive outlook. Connect with others who share similar goals and have a track record of goal achievement. McGonigal call this “goal contagion.” For example, your closest friend at work decides to take a new class or explore a planning software program, and you think to yourself, “gee, maybe I should give it a try.” Good boost and growth stretch.
BUT Beware: it can work against you too. If the person you have lunch with every day tends to give up easily or has trouble accepting change, you will be tempted to take and spread the same viewpoint, particularly if you like this person or consider him or her to be most like you. Again, unlike the flu, studies show that you are most likely to be influenced by people you like or you think are most like you. Guard yourself against catching someone else’s bad habits or moods by taking a few minutes at the beginning of each day thinking about your own desired attitude, goals for the day and likely emotions and what types of situations could potentially derail you – one-on-one interactions, meetings, e-mails, project delays etc.
3. Beware of the “Rule Breaking” virus and hold people accountable. Researchers at the University of Groningenin the Netherlands have conducted studies that show that rule breaking is contagious. When we observe that other people ignore rules and do what they want, we are more likely to do the same. As an individual contributor, overcome your own tendency to let things slide. As a manager or supervisor, hold others accountable for what they say they will do and promptly address poor performance before it spreads to others.
4. Reward and recognize good role models, and that includes you. As a leader, purposefully recruit, retain and reward talent that builds the environment you want. Find projects and tasks to encourage positive influencers to rub off on negative ones. Psychologists call this “social proof.” McGonigal asserts that “if the rest of the tribe does something, we tend to think it’s the smart thing to do.” It’s no wonder that social media outlets are such a powerful influence in today’s society – if you “like” it, maybe I should too – if 90% of the people say it is so, it must be true. Use these social instincts (data, events, teams) to create the culture you want. Don’t forget to spend time connecting with your staff and others to uncover what is “socially acceptable” in your work environment before it drives a culture you may not want.
So, flu season can be a good time of year. It earmarks a pause point where we can step back, assess our workplace health, and boost its immune system.