Grumpy at Work? You’re Not the Only One

Do you ever lose your cool at work?

Do any of your colleagues flick the switch and become cranky? Not just irritable but seriously bad-tempered – teeth grinding, symptoms table thumping, viagra 60mg phone slamming, pilule finger pointing and feet stamping?

If you are sitting there muttering “yes” and recalling the last temple-pulsing explosion, then fear not.  You are not alone. In fact, most people are in your situation.

I Cannot Believe They Noticed Me!

Noel Radley at project management technology consultancy Software Advice estimates that 84% of people have seen one or more of their colleagues lose it in their workplace, whilst 73% have seen their manager get cranky.

The truth is that regardless of our work environments and job titles, we are humans, first and foremost.

This means we communicate with those around us, 24/7.  Every word or action, whether we know it or not, sends a message. Sigale Barsade has been researching the effects of emotion in the workplace for more than 15 years and says that people are “emotional conductors” who bring their emotions to work every day. Our body language, facial expressions, attitudes, tone of voice, the way we respond to others…all of these reach out and create an impression.

And here’s the thing.

Our mood impacts our audience and our performance.

Everyone that we deal with – our teams, clients, stakeholders and partners – responds, whether deliberately or subconsciously, to the message we put out. Barsade calls this “emotional contagion” and says that “Emotions travel from person to person like a virus.”

Not surprisingly, Radley estimates that  75% of people believe that their mood and productivity would be affected by someone displaying negative emotions in the workplace.

Just let these numbers sink in for a moment.  Nearly everyone in your team will notice if you or another of the team are cranky.  Think you can get away without anyone noticing that telephone tantrum?  Think again.

It gets worse, with three quarters of your team likely to react poorly when you are upset.

For anyone leading a team, these are compelling numbers that drive home three simple messages.

  1. Everyone gets cranky
  2. Almost everyone will notice if you lose your temper
  3. Nearly everyone will react poorly when they see you upset

Our challenge then, is to find the opportunity in these numbers.

If we want them to be productive, we need to find ways to see the warning signs, handle the flare-ups and turn negative vibes around into something positive.  If we understand that our emotions are contagious, then we can

  • Think about what sets off our own behaviour and focus on strategies to either avoid or minimise the negative feedback
  • Understand what upsets our team members and work with them to avoid the triggers

Radley suggests that almost half (44%) of people take personal responsibility for addressing their negative feelings in the workplace.

With this in mind, we may be better off thinking about how we can help our teams feel good about their work, rather than telling them how wonderful things are and how happy they should be.

No generic, bland messages about corporate vision and values creating a great workplace. No slogans about how much people are appreciated and respected.

Supporting and nurturing. Engaging and personal. One-on-one.

So let’s think about steps you can take to recognise the onset of negative emotions in your team and create a nurturing, supportive environment that allows people to look out for themselves.

How Do We Create the Right Environment

Promote a sense of calm and control

Jenna Goudreau points out the importance of starting the day with a feeling of calm and control, through regular self-reflection such as meditation, journal writing or exercise.

Whilst you may not be able to have your entire team complete a morning yoga session, you can certainly create an environment that allows people to start the day with a clear head and a shared sense of direction.

Kick off the day with a short team chat over morning coffee – nothing too heavy, just a quick recap on where you are at, what the priorities are and what everyone’s role is for the day. Clear the air. Let people feel involved. Start the day with a clean slate.

Promote “Emotional Awareness”

Set aside regular time to take the team out of their normal workspace and reflect as a group on where they are and how they are feeling.

Simple and personal.

A Friday afternoon team retrospective session with a whiteboard and donuts is a great way to create an open and trusting environment that lets people can call out the things that matter to them.

Let people write down what’s on their mind. Give them a chance to speak freely. Hear what they have to say.

Be attentive to Anger

Donald Gibson and Sigale Barsade talk about anger as a positive emotion, in the sense that “if someone is angry about something, usually it’s a problem [in the workplace]”. Observing anger in our team members gives us the chance to think about the situational context.

So if someone is letting off steam, hear them out.

Let them have their say and at the same time, listen to what they are really telling you.

What they say and what they tell you may not be the same thing.

Provide one-on-one sessions

Talk with your team members regularly, one-on-one. Give them a secure, regular time when you can share ideas, let them have their say, help them see where they fit in the wider scheme, provide feedback – provide individual, open communication.

Persist with this.

Give it time and let them see that you are listening and value what they have to say. Sure enough, they will open up and let you know how they are really feeling about things, as trust builds.

Again, listen to what your team members are saying. Give them space and time to express themselves and help them work out how to take control of their own feelings.

Bringing it all back home

These numbers tell a compelling story.

Want to lose your best people? Create a workplace in which tension simmers, air is not cleared and people are not able to express themselves safely.

As Project Leaders, our success will not just be built on a sound plan, clear requirements and a rigorous budget – it will also depend on building an environment in which our team and stakeholders feel safe, can express themselves freely and take personal responsibility for how their behaviours affect the people around them (no finger pointing or judgements needed!).

How do you deal with negative emotions in your workplace?  Do you let them happen and deal with the consequences or do you plan ahead and try to minimise the impacts?


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