Why Negativity Is Infectious

When we reframe negativity and instead focus on progress and positivity, we're all able to come together as a community.

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Negativity is a virus. It’s more destructive than we might think. Not only does it tank people’s performance and lead to toxic interactions within the community, but, to make matters worse, like any virus, it’s contagious, infecting those who are exposed to it. We’ve learned that even small doses of negativity get passed on to other team members.

Research I did with Alexandra Gerbasi found that negative emotions spread throughout social networks at work. People don’t necessarily realize that their own negative feelings or energy can infect others, with costly consequence for the team and the organization, but the effects are real. For example, in a study I did with Christine Pearson, we analyzed the effects of negativity among 137 managers enrolled in an executive MBA program. Negative emotions led people to displace bad feelings onto their organization, which resulted in decreasing the effort or time they put into work, lowering their level of performance, and reducing their commitment to their organization. They also displaced their negative emotions onto their colleagues, bosses, customers, and clients. Negativity in the workplace led to communication breakdowns, lack of cooperation, failure to share information and knowledge, and decreased productivity.

Poor mental well-being is also like an infectious disease. Researchers studied more than two hundred fifty thousand employees in over seventeen thousand firms over twelve years and found that negative mental health, in the form of anxiety, depression, and stress-related disorders, spreads. They found that newcomers who are diagnosed with these mental disorders or who leave unhealthy organizations (those with a higher prevalence of negative mental health) to start new jobs in other organizations serve as “carriers” of negative mental health and can “implant” depression, anxiety, and stress-related disorders into their people. Managers are particularly influential—they’re “superspreaders” who spread low mental well-being more easily.

And if all that’s not enough to convince you of the killing effects of negativity, a recent study found that repetitive negative thinking in later life was linked to cognitive decline and greater deposits of two harmful proteins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.Consider what kind of negativity you might be taking in from your surroundings—the news you read, the social media you peruse, the conversations you overhear, the feedback you get from family, friends, colleagues, and bosses. Even more important, if you are a leader, what kind of negativity might you be dishing out?

How to Counter Negativity

Make it unacceptable in the workplace.

Be clear with your staff that rude, abusive, insulting, or demeaning language will not be tolerated. And to ensure that people know you mean what you say, let them know there will be consequences for such behavior.

Be careful what you verbalize.

Negative language is particularly insidious and potent. Be mindful of what you’re thinking and particularly of what you are saying. What we say out loud carries significant weight. Based on research his father did years ago, Moawad revealed that it’s ten times more damaging to our sense of thriving if we verbalize a negative thought than if we just think it.

Reframe and neutralize.

Think twice about how you frame a situation. Instead of saying, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” or “It’s terrible,” tweak your language to be more neutral. You might say, “This situation is challenging,” which recognizes both the difficulty and the opportunity for growth or learning. You can—and should—acknowledge the truth, while minimizing its power to drag you and your team down.

At Second City, if performers are shaking or sweating before an audition or a show, they’re coached to say, out loud, “I’m excited” versus “I’m nervous.” Second City also taps into community support. Performers have a mantra— “Pat each other on the back because I’ve got your back”—which they say before performing together.

Experiment. Try controlling your negative expressions for twenty-four hours. Yes, inevitably negative thoughts will cross your mind. Don’t let yourself verbalize them. Be mindful of your language—choose it wisely. See how this affects you, your relationships, and your outcomes.

Put the emphasis on progress.

Based on over a decade of research, which included a deep analysis of diaries kept by teammates on creative projects, psychologists Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School and Steven Kramer found that what motivates people on a day-to-day basis is the sense that they are making progress. Yet too often progress goes unnoticed in groups.21 Effective teams often keep a scoreboard or find ways to celebrate small wins every day. At The Mighty’s office, large whiteboards with numbers track various metrics, like number of readers of a story, or community members participating in an event. Employees update (and celebrate) the numbers throughout the day and week.

This approach is especially helpful during times of change. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a world-renowned expert in leadership and change at Harvard, has found that change is hardest in the middle period. Inspired beginnings and successful endings fuel us. Everything can look harder and more like failure in the middle. Forecasts fall short, decision makers become stingy with resources, and there are often unexpected obstacles and hidden delays. The middle requires hard work—often harder than people thought it would be. Good leaders look for opportunities to point to progress, supporting and encouraging their communities during the “miserable middle” phase. If they can inch their people forward by helping them to see times like these as an opportunity to develop new skills and capabilities, their mindset will be contagious.

Leaders need to find a way to help their teams muscle through the hard times in the middle; but they may also, let’s face it, have to help them deal with the defeats that sometimes occur at the end. Tina Sung, vice president at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, has decades of experience coaching colleagues through change, mergers and acquisitions, and challenges. She described sitting with her own team, with a box of Kleenex on the conference room table, mourning the loss of their company (to an acquisition). Sung

recognized the importance of acknowledging loss, but also of getting her team unstuck. As she so aptly put it: “You can visit pity city, but you can’t live there.”

Use nostalgia and make memories to use as nostalgia.

Get your team unstuck by reminding them of positive events and accomplishments from the past. Relive your wins, as Wilson did. Use nostalgia to increase your resilience to current psychological threats. When people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they are better at coping with work stresses like a rude manager.

Nostalgia helps counteract anxiety and loneliness. Couples who frequently reminisce about past happy events in their lives together enjoy better relationships. Nostalgia encourages people to act more generously, which feeds and benefits relationships and community. Nostalgia helps people write more creatively. It helps us to finish tasks, overcome adversity, and strive toward goals. Consider social psychologist Constantine Sedikides, whose personal experiences including a move from Chapel Hill to the United Kingdom sparked innovative work on nostalgia. He has referred to it as the “perfect internal politician, connecting the past with the present, pointing optimistically to the future.” He encourages “anticipated nostalgia” by making good memories today that will make for positive thoughts in the future. He’s found that the more nostalgic memories that employees have of company events, the less likely they are to look for jobs elsewhere. Events and shared memories, from birthday dinners, anniversaries, to retreats or weekend trips endure and can be a wise investment for people—and communities.

Excerpted from the book MASTERING COMMUNITY: THE SURPRISING WAYS COMING TOGETHER MOVES US FROM SURVIVING TO THRIVING by Christine Porath. Copyright © 2022 by Christine Porath. Reprinted with permission of Balance, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. 

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