We all have those days when our words and actions don't come out the way we intended. Or we take our stress out on others. We intend to give a compliment or a simple criticism and it instead sounds more critical than we really feel. Between friends, a simple “I’m sorry, I’m just stressed lately” can repair these missteps. Our friends know that just because we were their loyal confidante one day and a nutcase the next is not necessarily a reflection on the friendship itself. The workplace, however, is a more delicate environment and a simple “I’m sorry” may not be as effective, or even appropriate if we are talking about the dynamic between boss and employee.
Though we hate to admit it, our bosses can change the emotional tone of our day with a couple words, either encouraging or critical. Thus, it is extremely important for a boss to watch how they reinforce their employees’ behavior and maintain consistency. Inconsistent bossing can turn a great employee who is excited to come to work every day into a disgruntled nonplussed employee who allows him/herself to become complacent and disinterested.
If a boss changes their tune on a daily basis, an employee will become confused. If an employee receives a “Great job!” one day and then a nitpicking criticism the next on a similar performance, the employee will simply be confused. Of course the boss may not have any idea that they did any damage. The boss may have spilled coffee on themselves on the way to work, someone may have looked at them the wrong way, or maybe there is trouble at home. Then, they got to work, saw a small error in the employee’s performance and – instead of leading with the positive – they tell the employee the small thing that was wrong. The boss returns to their work, clueless that damage was just inflicted; the employee returns to his/her desk dejected and baffled.
Over time, repetitive inconsistent behavior like this on the part of the boss can lead to learned helplessness in the employee. Essentially learned helplessness means the employee once thought of themselves as competent and good at what they do, but because of their boss’ inconsistent reinforcement, their opinion of themselves degenerates and they’ve come to think of themselves as incompetent. This of course can all be avoided by self-awareness.
Bosses can take a moment when they arrive to work (or whenever necessary) to self-evaluate their mindset, see where there thoughts lay to make sure they don’t project their own whimsical emotions on others. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being in a bad mood or giving an employee constructive criticism. What we’re after is ensuring that whatever reinforcement we give is constructive and is based on the job done and not an irrelevant fleeting emotion that we brought into the workplace. We’re all human, things happen, but we can get better at training our minds, watching them.
There is a phenomenon called Emotional Contagion that deals specifically with this concentric projection of attitudes and feelings and it is very simple: if you smile and are positive around someone, they will feel good and most likely carry that positivity to the next place they go, which can create a ripple effect. It’s pretty amazing when you conceive how powerful a small positive gesture can be. The same ripple effect can of course occur when projecting negativity. Want proof? Take a moment and think about whether you feel good or bad around a positive person and/or negative person. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this one out.
Let’s get scientific for a second. Sigal Barsade (2002), currently a Professor of Management at The Wharton School, conducted seminal work into the positive and negative effects of the emotional dance that takes place in every group. For the study, she assigned 94 business school undergraduates to 29 different groups ranging in size from two to four participants, including one ringer (otherwise known as a confederate), an actor from the drama department. Each group would decide how to allocate money from a bonus pool. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, the ringer was instructed by Barsade to act out different mood and energy levels, such as cheerful enthusiasm, serene warmth, hostile irritability and depressed sluggishness.
Barsarde found that the participants acted differently, depending on the actor’s performance. The actor’s cheerfulness made the group more cheerful; the actor’s anger made the group angrier. Positive emotions created more cooperation; negative emotions increased conflict and decreased cooperative decision-making.
Barsade observed, “People are walking mood inductors, continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.” The effect occurs in every type of organization, in every industry, and in every large and small work group.
Consistency creates stability and a stable work environment promotes well-being among workers, both superior and subordinate alike. It is similar to a family dynamic. It has long been accepted that a stable home is the best home for a child to grow up in. It creates the nurturing backbone for a child to fulfill their potential. An unstable home can lead to, well, I think we’re all aware of the effects of unstable homes. The workplace is no different. It’s a kind of family.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nicole Lipkin is a business and organizational psychologist, consultant, and speaker, holding a doctorate in Clinical Psychology as well as an MBA. She is the president of Equilibria Leadership Consulting and the founder of Equilibria Psychological and Consultation Services. In addition to her new book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night, Nicole is the co-author of Y in the Workplace. Nicole has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business News, and other high-profile media outlets. She lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.