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Infectious Diseases October 28, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.
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Many years ago, I worked with a group of software developers who were situated in a typical cube farm.  One day, a woman came to work clearly not feeling well.  As the morning progressed, her conditioned worsened, punctuated with repeated trips to the restroom.

Her cube neighbor was concerned that she might be carrying some infectious disease.  Sure enough, as time went by, he began to feel sick himself.  Soon he was running to the restroom as well, and by the end of the day they had both gone home.

It turns out that she was suffering from a bad bout of morning sickness.  Her coworker, it seemed, had contracted the rarest of all airborne maladies, psychosomatic male pregnancy.

While pregnancy is tough to catch at work, other diseases spread easily.  While diseases can usually be treated and disposed of, other infections can be much tougher.  These kinds of infections include attitude, ethics, and courtesy.

People tend to mirror those around them.  If the workplace is a sad, depressing, miserable place, everyone in it will be sad, miserable, and depressed.  Happy, upbeat, pleasant places create happy, upbeat, pleasant people.  The prevalent mood spreads quickly, one way or the other.

As leaders, we have tremendous control over what is in the air.  Our attitude sets the tone for the team.  We need to choose our attitude carefully, because it will be mimicked, consciously or unconsciously, by those around us.  While maintaining a continuously Pollyannish approach isn’t going to fool anyone, genuine confident enthusiasm is a good thing.

We also need to be sensitive to the “carriers” in the group, both good and bad.  Every group has a few people whose genuine positive spirit is always a welcome breath of fresh air.  Their approach lifts every project, enhances every meeting, and brightens your day.  These people are treasures and you need to specifically praise them for their good effect on the team.

Conversely, every group has a few Eeyores.  These people find the cloud around every silver lining, know exactly why every good idea will fail, and seem to find ways to bring even the happiest person down.  These people can be fatal to your organization.  Oddly, many of these people have excellent technical skills, so we overlook their attitude to take advantage of their ability.  We make excuses for their behavior, hoping that their technical contributions outweigh their social impact. You can do that in the short term, but you cannot tolerate it for long.  A person is a whole package, and attitude problems are no more or less serious than technical or ethical ones.

As leaders, we need to remove the infectious bad attitudes from our group and allow the good attitudes to more easily spread. Who are you infecting today?

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Comments»

1. Lynn M - October 28, 2009

Chuck, I don’t even know where to start! That is such a funny story and it reminds me of my husband too. The line “while pregnancy is tough to catch at work…” I won’t even touch! I couldn’t agree more with your idea of carriers when it comes to attitudes. Infect someone with a smile today….or how about showing your appreciation? This post focuses on sales jobs, but it relates to any job and even outside work. Thanks! http://www.salesresources.com/articles/article.cfm?ID=1322

2. Jim Baxley - October 28, 2009

Chuck: I think there is room for the nay-sayers. Attitude: no. But we need those who can see the flaws in our grand plans. Check out Lateral Thinking/Six Hats by de Bono. It needs to be managaed, but it takes all kinds.

3. Steven M. Smith - October 29, 2009

Chuck, I’m uncertain about your prescription.

People are different. Some are perceived to always have a positive attitude; some are perceived to have an attitude that varies between positive and negative; and some are perceived to be always negative.

I can see why a manager likes an employee who always have a positive attitude. They never hesitate to jump on the manager’s bandwagon and say “can do.”

I can see why a manager dislikes employees who are always negative. They never jump on the manager’s bandwagon. They believe nothing can be done to improve the situation.

I can see why a manager may have concerns about employees whose attitude varies. They can’t be counted on to automatically jump on the manager’s bandwagon. The see themselves as realists. They want to apply their energy to a project that will be successful rather than to project that will be a deathmarch.

I’ve had the privilege of being a member of several high performing teams. I cannot recall any non-management members of those teams who would jump on a manager’s bandwagon nor any member who was always negative. The members were realistic. Success wasn’t guaranteed by a positive attitude. Success was made possible by creating an environment that empowered the team to solve problems. This creation could only be accomplished through a collaboration between the team and management.

I agree that employees who are always negative are a plague and need to go. But please don’t confuse realism with negativity. Otherwise, in my experience, the manager will end up with a bandwagon full of positive people going nowhere.

4. Chuck Musciano - October 29, 2009

@Lynn: Thanks for the cross-link! Attitude and approach make a world of difference. And I’m touching that comment about work-related pregnancy either…

@Jim & @Steven: I draw a big distinction between attitude and being realistic. My goal is not to acquire a team of yes-men (which is fatal to any leader) but to develop a team of realists that can choose a positive manner in which to deal with that realism.

I do believe it is possible to accurately assess and deal with bad situations with a positive and supportive attitude. I expect my people to take me aside and give me forthright advice whenever I need it, and they can do this with a positive attitude.

I once worked with a guy who was so universally depressing that the running joke was that if you gave him a million dollars, he’d complain that it was in small bills. There are people who will find the cloud for every silver lining, and there are those who, like the old joke says, know that “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

I want people who can deal with bad news in a good way, who can tell the truth without wallowing in bad news, and who do not fear difficult times. Good attitudes make good times better and bad times tolerable. Bad attitudes just make everything worse.

5. Wally Bock - October 29, 2009

Here’s the money quote for me. This could be tattooed on every leader’s arm, where they could refer to it often. “As leaders, we have tremendous control over what is in the air. Our attitude sets the tone for the team.”

6. Laura Brandau - November 3, 2009

Chuck,

Thank you for the great article. I’m currently reading Yes! Attitude and becoming increasingly aware of the power of a positive attitude. I agree that your best employees help infect your workplace with the positive and your negative the opposite. I’ve had to deal with negative employees in the past and it was eye-opening to see the slow, dimming effect they had on the team.

Best,
Laura Brandenburg
http://www.bridging-the-gap.com

7. Steve Freeman - November 3, 2009

Have you considered that some of those bad attitudes you’re removing from your team might actually be sick? Depression is endemic in our industry and is a clinical condition that is, to some extent, treatable. Unfortunately, many people, particularly those who have never had it, cannot tell the difference between Depression and a defective personality. Are you firing people who should be on sick leave?

8. Chuck Musciano - November 4, 2009

Steve,

You raise a good point. But please don’t misunderstand; people should never be fired without significant efforts at avoiding that final solution. That includes chances to redeem themselves, exploring why they not meeting your expectations, and a heart-to-heart conversation that touches on those sensitive “other things” that could be impacting their work life.

9. Steve Freeman - November 4, 2009

Thanks for clarifying that. Your last paragraph is a nice finish, but could be misinterpreted.

I’d also suggest that dealing with these issues is not the sort of thing that management should do without some training. It’s easy to make things worse.

10. Wally Bock - November 4, 2009

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

http://blog.threestarleadership.com/2009/11/04/11409-midweek-look-at-the-independent-business-blogs.aspx

Wally Bock


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