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You may not love your job, but mostly, days are at least tolerable. But an OK day at the office can get much worse when you have a colleague who won’t stop complaining about how bad it is.
They grumble about how their holiday wasn’t approved, how bored they are, how much they hate their boss. Before long, you start to notice how this person’s constant complaining makes your workday actively worse. Over time, you may even start disliking your own job more, viewing the company in a negative new light.
There’s evidence to suggest that certain attitudes and behaviours can spread from one person to a group of people quite easily, especially in work contexts: for example, employees are more likely to engage in immoral acts, like lying or stealing, if they work alongside others who commit such acts.
But subtler forms of workplace negativity – like a colleague who just doesn’t like their job and is vocal about it – can also send ripple effects through teams.
Emotional contagion occurs when we, as social creatures, recognise emotions in others and subconsciously mimic them. For example, when we see a coworker in a bad mood after a meeting, it tells us that something did not go right in the meeting.
Emotional contagion is most likely to happen when one does not have a definite opinion about the situation and the person who’s displaying certain emotion is someone you respect or are close to.
There’s a range of effects on teams in which negativity is spreading. At best, workers’ satisfaction with their role, team or company could dip; at worst, unhappy workers could end up looking for jobs elsewhere in a mass-quitting phenomenon known as turnover contagion.
So, how can we stamp out the spread? If you’re in a situation in which you’re relatively happy, there are strategies you can implement to try and shut out other people’s complaints: classic tips include aligning yourself with positive people, creating boundaries with others and redirecting the conversation toward positivity.
Experts also say a crucial thing to keep in mind is if people are unhappy in your team, it’s often a much bigger problem than one disgruntled worker. It might not be one bad apple – it might be bad organisational practices.
For example, workplaces pressuring people to stay online late, bosses emailing people at 23:00 or conditions being kept in place that allow burnout to run rampant. However, that means some of the burden falls on companies to improve their cultures, and it’s difficult to know if employers will embrace change.
"The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.”- John Maxwell
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