The Ripple Effect

August 7th, 2006

Did you have a good day? How much effect do you think you have on what you, your team, your company achieves…and how people feel about it?

During this very hot weather, fatigue and frustration has reigned. We have all seen people dragging themselves into work, slogging through the day, snapping at each other. We each have struggled with the heat and transportation complexities. And, after a day being surrounded by other beaten down people, our energy is further sapped. It actually takes more energy to overcome a negative experience than to respond to a positive one.

In her recent article, Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Desk, Wharton Professor Nancy Rothbard makes a compelling case for the effect of mood on workplace productivity.

Seems so obvious, doesn’t it? We spend countless hours reacting to, decoding, talking about and working around our own and other’s moods. Then we go home and complain about, or even worse, dump these moods into our personal time.

And yet, we would all agree that checking and adjusting disposition is not a typical daily, conscious habit. At the Executive level, mood subtleties create not a ripple effect but a rip tide effect. Executive vibes are observed, reflected and resound in employees’ own moods and behaviors.

When we debrief the interviews I have conducted–either in preparation for a team off site or for 360 degree reports–my clients have been consistently surprised by the impact that their mood has on the work product. Such subtle behaviors as vocal pace and volume, stride, and facial expressions are observed, absorbed and reverberate beyond the leader’s awareness and expectations. Style, attitude and actions can have a major effect on how staff and colleagues operate.
In conducting interviews I hear things about leaders like:

“He is always preoccupied, unavailable, short tempered and so we are afraid to suggest ways to improve things around here.”

“He must be very insecure and nervous, so we are afraid to take risks.”

“She never just stops by my desk to see how I am doing…everything is late night email and voice mail. I know she is very busy and overworked, but I don’t get the feeling she cares about me and my career.”

“No matter what’s going on in his private life or the amount of pressure he is under, he is always calm, encouraging, and responsive. I’d go through a wall for my boss!”

I have facilitated a number of meetings in which the leader’s mood clearly sets the pace. In one meeting, the senior executive who normally has a great deal of energy and passion was very subdued, spoke softly, slowly and with very little energy. While her team started out attentive, within a brief two minutes, they slouched in their seats, started to look down at papers or blackberries and lost energy. Afterward, the executive blamed her reports for not caring about the issues discussed. What actually happened here, however, was that the leader’s mood was contagious: her low energy was modeled by her team.

Alternately, I worked with a leader who, despite a heavy travel schedule and a very challenging quarter, consciously made up his mind to display optimism and vision during a critical staff meeting. From pre-meeting interviews we learned that the team experienced him as defeated and exhausted. We talked together prior to the meeting about the atmosphere he needed to create to win the hearts and minds of his team and to instill optimism. He succeeded in moving them from despair and discouragement to a dynamic action plan by showing spirit and excitement about the possibilities. His high energy and positive attitude caught on. The team engaged in a dynamic action plan and volunteered for challenging assignments.

Create the results YOU want. There is a very simple exercise. I call it “Show Time”. Here’s how it works:

Think of yourself as a performer. When you step onto your “stage” or enter your workplace, consider what mood you want to portray and therefore create in your “audience”, or colleagues and staff. Try it. You will see a positive result in those around you…and because mood is contagious, you will find that the positive atmosphere you create bounces back to you as well.

Let me know what you think. Make it a great day!

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