like spreading it around

2020 is over. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

Don’t you wish we could flip a switch on the anxieties we felt last year as easily as we turn the page on the calendar? As I looked forward at 2021, I looked back over the last five years in our lives and saw this truth: every year has ups and downs that affect our mood at work; they just change over time. Not rocket surgery I know, but I needed the reminder.

Like leading by example, we don’t have a choice on whether our mood affects those around us and those who work for us. It does. Now I can’t guarantee a positive outlook and motivation will fill our workplaces with butterflies and rainbows, but there can be no doubt that a leader’s dour mood directly affects their employees’ morale and engagement.

I’m a strict Calvinist. In my favorite comic strip of all time, Calvin sums this up nicely: “Nothing helps a bad mood like spreading it around.”

I used to think I was a pretty positive boss to work for. Then one day a mentor called me out when he said, “Kevin, you’re just not prone to happiness, are you?” A huge part of a leader’s role is inspiring others to follow in pursuit of a vision. We make it really hard for them to be inspired if they don’t believe we are.

No, I’m not trying to resurrect the old myth about leaders having to be charismatic – there’s plenty of evidence to debunk that. But from the C-suites to the referent leaders far down in the organization, others are taking their emotional cues from us. Not a believer? Reflect for a second on a couple of the very best leaders you known: were they positive and encouraging in a way that make you want to do and be better, or did their interactions feel perfunctory and their tone and manner… like a thin veneer covering their anxiety.

Here’s a test: we all come to work at less than our best once in a while. On the rare occasion we do – regardless of whether we’re bothered by a work-related issue or something that happened outside the office – do people ask is something wrong? If not, it either means they’re used to us being in a bad mood or we’re not as approachable as we should be.

So how do we do it? How do we model a positive attitude when it feels like the world is throwing us more curveballs than we can hit? Do we just grin and bear it? Fake it ‘til we make it?

I have a better strategy for 2021. Here are a few tried and true behaviors that can improve our outlook and make us more positive leaders in (and out of) the workplace:

  • First and foremost: no complaining! Psychologists generally agree that our brains are hardwired to spend more mental energy and time on negative events than we do on good news. Complaining can easily become a habit, so we have to intentionally resist that negativity bias and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. (Thanks, mom.)
  • Keep the vocabulary positive. Speaking of saying things, we can be honest about substandard efforts without sounding accusatory or hostile. “I think there’s a problem with this” and “I don’t think this is your best work” have a completely different impact than “You screwed this up” and “This is a piece of crap.”
  • Avoid emotional vacuum cleaners. I don’t mean the kind of emotional vacuum where it feels like nothing can fill an inner void; I mean the kind of person who can suck the joy out of a Superbowl victory parade. A common trait of good leaders is being empathetic, but that doesn’t mean we need to spend more time with Negative Nancy or Derek Downer than necessary. Maintain a positive boundary and move on.
  • Don’t lose sight of the long game. As in don’t sweat the small stuff. (Thanks again, mom.) Many of our problems at work are short-term and in the big scheme of things aren’t that big of a deal. After we deal with a problem, will it still seem like a big deal next week? Next month? Next year? The Greek philosopher Epictetus reminds us “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
  • Finally, put your own mask on first. Like donning emergency oxygen masks on an airplane, our heads have to be in the game enough to recognize when others are struggling. If they’re showing up at work anxious and frustrated and their performance or behavior is suffering, we’re liable to take the easy way out and address only what we see. That’s especially true if not taking good enough care ourselves.

Our folks deserve our best efforts in giving them a positive workplace where they can be successful. Are we giving it to them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

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