Be the Leader Who Creates a Positive Workplace

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Has this ever happened to you? You're having a good day — the commute to work was easy, you've crossed off things on your to-do list, one meeting has been canceled and another was very short, and you're feeling really positive about your team and the work that they do. You go to the staff lounge to get a cup of coffee and are drawn into a conversation with a few colleagues that turns into an endless gripe session. You try to steer the conversation to something more upbeat, but no one pays attention. As you head back to your office, your good mood has vanished and you now see problems everywhere you look. What happened?

Emotions Are Contagious

What happened was that we are actually wired to pick up subtle (and not-so-subtle) clues from each other. When confronted with something unpleasant or negative, we experience a physiological reaction that occurs in response to any perceived threat to survival. This is commonly known as the fight-flight-freeze response or the stress response. Our brain signals a threat and our body responds to keep us safe. While we hope that the workplace isn't like the jungle, the brain doesn't actually know the difference. When something negative happens, we instinctively hunker down to protect ourselves. In that staff lounge scenario, if everyone was laughing and joking when you entered, it is more than likely that you would have done so as well. However, when you encountered the gripe session, the emotions of the group infected your good emotions and turned them sour.

Research has shown that negative emotions are actually stronger than positive emotions — that is, negative events produce "larger, more consistent, more multifaceted, or more lasting effects than positive events." In short, we remember negative situations and these stay with us for a much longer period of time. Many years ago, I did a session at a conference. The group was attentive and interactive. I had worked hard to prepare the session and was generally pleased with the outcome. Then the evaluations came. Of the 30 responses, 29 were positive. One, however, was not. The words, to this day, still sting — "Dull, boring session. My cardboard lunch was more interesting than this session." Ouch. I was crushed. I berated myself for not prepping more thoroughly and creatively. I kept thinking that I should have done more research on my topic. I knew I shouldn't have tackled this topic and the experience confirmed all my fears about doing presentations, and on and on. All the positive feedback about the utility of the session and how much the participants learned faded in comparison to this one disgruntled person's comments. I was definitely in that negative space. And, this one negative comment among the all the good feedback is the only one that I can still quote verbatim 20 years later. Shame on me!

While negative emotions are not inherently bad (remember, at their root these are signals critical to survival), they do cause us to narrow our focus and our range of attention. Consequently, we need to keep these balanced with positive emotions in order to be productive and well balanced. Richard Boyatzis, Distinguished University Professor in the Departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University, says that we need to overemphasize the positive to balance with the negative. He goes on to say that a ratio of 3:1 (positive to negative) is necessary in the workplace for teams to thrive. For those in management or leadership positions, this acknowledgement helps us understand why focusing on problems or tasks may appear to concentrate our staff's attention, but it may be doing it in a manner that arouses a negative state and, therefore, closes a person emotionally, perceptually, and cognitively to alternatives that might actually prove to be better solutions. Such an outcome is often the exact opposite effect desired by the leader who most likely is trying to encourage innovation, productivity, and growth.

Why Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive

While many of us have experienced high-stress, even cut-throat, work environments, research on positive organizational psychology demonstrates that not only is a high-stress environment harmful to productivity (including many hidden costs) over time, but that a positive environment will lead to dramatic benefits for the organization and its employees.

For example, a report done by the American Psychological Association estimates that more than $500 billion is siphoned off from the U.S. economy because of workplace stress, and 550 million workdays are lost each year due to stress on the job. Yikes! Workplace stress has been linked to health issues ranging from cardiovascular disease to mortality, plus the lower you are on the organizational chart the higher your stress level often is. Everyone in a leadership position should take note.

The hidden cost of staff disengagement is another key factor in organizational culture. A stressful environment and even a culture of fear can focus the staff and compel them to engage for a time, but that same research also suggests that the inevitable stress it creates will likely lead to disengagement over the long term. Engagement in work, which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected, is antithetical to a high-stress culture. As leaders, you have responsibility for encouraging a culture that fosters engagement in order to have a productive and innovative team, as well as creating a work environment that limits stress.

A Gallup study found that disengaged employees had 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 60% more errors and defects and, overall, they experienced 18% lower productivity. Interestingly, organizations with highly engaged employees enjoyed 100% more job applications and fewer staff turnovers. Dissatisfied staff start looking at the job market, decline promotions, or resign. And, as we all know, the turnover costs associated with recruiting, training, lowered productivity, lost expertise — never mind the costs associated with replacing an employee — are significant.

Well-being comes from one place only — a positive culture, and it is our responsibility as leaders to provide that for our staff. Creating a positive and healthy culture for your team centers on a several characteristics:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues
  • Providing support for one another, including being kind and compassionate when others are struggling
  • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes
  • Inspiring one another at work
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work
  • Treating everyone with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity

So, how can you as the manager and leader do this? Here are a few steps to try.

1. Foster social connections. Positive social connections at work produce highly desirable results. For example, people get sick less often, recover twice as fast, experience less depression, learn faster and remember longer, tolerate discomfort better, display more mental acuity, and perform better on the job. Toxic, stress-filled workplaces negatively affect social relationships and even life expectancy. The first boss I ever had walked around the unit every morning saying good morning and chatting for a few minutes. While this took time from his busy schedule, it also fostered a calm environment where the staff was not stressed to see the boss coming around. He knew everyone beyond what his or her job description stated.

2. Show empathy. As the leader, you have a huge impact on how your team feels. A fascinating brain-imaging study found that when employees recalled a boss who had been unkind or not empathic, they showed increased activation in areas of the brain associated with avoidance and negative emotion, while the opposite was true when they recalled an empathic boss. I'm sure each of us can recall both types of bosses, and I know that none of us wants to be remembered as having a negative impact on our team.

3. Go out of your way to help. Have you ever had a manager or mentor who took extra time to help you when he or she did not have to? Chances are you have remained loyal to that person. When you are not just fair but self-sacrificing, your staff are actually inspired to be more loyal and committed themselves. As a result, they are more likely to go out of their way to be helpful to other staff members, thereby creating a self-reinforcing, positive cycle. They are also more productive.

4. Encourage people to talk to you. Not surprisingly, trusting that the leader has your best interests at heart improves employee performance. When staff feel safe rather than fearful and when leaders are inclusive, humble, and encourage their staff to speak up or ask for help, the overall workplace environment improves and leads to better learning and performance outcomes. Rather than creating a culture of fear of negative consequences, feeling safe in the workplace helps encourage experimentation, which is critical for innovation. Another study has shown that empowerment, when coupled with good training and teamwork, leads to superior performance outcomes, whereas a range of efficient operations practices does not.

Relationships Matter

Because of the dynamic nature of emotional contagion, the quality of relationships matters in determining effective leadership and engagement. Boyatzis says that the quality of the "perceived relationship between the leader and followers mediates follower performance and citizenship."

Here's an experiment to consider. Start your next staff meeting with something different. Prior to the meeting, task one or two team members to go out and find the positive impact IT service is having on campus. Then have staff share these stories with the entire group, you can go on with your agenda. Make it a standing agenda item. Doing something like this keeps everyone focused on the purpose and vision, it sets the tone and reminds everyone why we do what we do, and it creates positive emotions to kick off the meeting. This activity is simple and inspirational. It activates creativity and innovation…and it works! I know someone who has done this regularly and she reports that the results are amazing. Staff can see the positive impact that they are having by the work that they are doing. Team members, she reports, are eager to share their stories and, in turn, are more productive and innovative in finding solutions because these stories validate their work. They have also become more supportive of each other during tough times.


A positive workplace is more successful over time because it increases positive emotions and well-being. This, in turn, improves the relationship of team members and amplifies their abilities and their creativity. This type of workplace environment is a buffer against negative experiences such as stress, thus improving staff's resiliency to bounce back from challenges and difficulties while bolstering their overall health. It has the added benefit of attracting employees, making them more loyal to the team and to the organization as well as bringing out their strengths. When organizations develop positive cultures, they achieve significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including customer satisfaction, productivity, and employee engagement. That's a sure recipe for success. Give it a try and be the leader who inspires others.

Joan F. Cheverie is director of professional development at EDUCAUSE.

© 2017 Joan F. Cheverie. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0