An email with a snippy tone. A phone call that felt punitive or terse. Slack channels where people bite back. Meetings with more complaints than constructive conversation. An exasperated eye roll from your partner. Attitude from your kids.
Does that sound like your week too?
The pandemic is making us grumpy. Irritability seems to be infectious; we’ve all contracted it, and almost no one is asymptomatic.
The coronavirus has disrupted our daily lives in previously unimaginable ways. Covid-19 is keeping many of us at home, isolated from friends and family, without a steady diet of social activities, sporting events, or vacation and travel to distract us. As one senior leader recently told us, “all my guilty pleasures are gone, and I’m left just wondering what I do with myself.” Disruption and isolation can spark feelings of meaninglessness and existential despair.
Many people and organizations are also facing unprecedented challenges. Whole industries are being overturned, causing layoffs, unemployment, and greater ambiguity as leaders navigate uncertain terrain. Couple this with worries about economic insecurity, the health of our families, caring for kids at home while working remotely, and the challenge of simultaneously fighting against the pandemic of racism … well, it’s no wonder we’re a bit crabby.
But it doesn’t have to stay this way.
Below, we draw on evidence-based research to offer suggestions for interrupting your own grumpiness and changing the dynamic in your organization.
Bad moods are contagious, but you can stop the rate of infection with positive emotions.
Psychologists call the process of “catching” a bad mood emotional contagion. We’ve all experienced it. You witness someone in an irritable moment; instinctively, you mimic this attitude then begin to feel more irritable yourself. Then, you talk with another person and unintentionally pass the crankiness on to a colleague.
Thankfully, science says we can lower our contagion rate by interrupting the transmission. This requires exercising emotional intelligence to identify when you’re slipping into a bad mood and are likely to pass it along to others.
The first step is to do an emotional scan on yourself throughout the day. Checking your mood before you pick up the phone or step into your next Zoom conference can help you interrupt the cycle of negative emotional contagion.
But then what? How do you bust out of the bad mood? The research of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, offers insight. Fredrickson has discovered that cultivating positive emotions can help us recover quickly from negative experiences.
Positive emotions are like the undo button on your computer. They literally reset your mood and help bring your heart rate back to a more comfortable and revitalizing resting place.
How can you spark moments of positive emotion in the middle of a bad mood moment? Fredrickson’s research suggests loving kindness meditation as a possible outlet. But if you don’t have 15 minutes and a quiet room in which to meditate, her research shows that even briefly stepping outside, talking a quick walk, singing a song, calling a friend, or watching a short video that makes you feel content or amused can help bring your heart back to baseline.
Who knew that watching cute cat videos could be so helpful at work? (Have you seen the one where the cat tries ice cream for the first time?)
Focus on generativity, not just “happy talk” to improve bad moods
Positive emotions can help us recover from bad mood moments. But positivity can be a lot to ask for if you’re recovering from the coronavirus while trying to save your small business.
If your idea of positivity is rainbows and unicorns, the concept probably feels tone deaf for the current context. Researchers define positivity differently: Dr. Kim Cameron, co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan, writes that positivity is about thriving and flourishing both individually and collectively. It’s about growth and well-being, not superficially cheerful attitudes.
In tough times, focus on generativity. Psychologist Erik Erikson wrote about generativity as a mature stage of development where an individual’s focus turns toward helping others and improving the common good. Management scholar Gervase Bushe at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business brings this thinking into the workplace with the suggestion that we can offer or ask for generative ideas that enable new options to become available.
Often, simple questions can be the most effective tool for interrupting negative emotional contagion and making generativity possible. For example, when the complaints start to stack up, you can shift the conversation by saying, “That’s what we don’t want. What do we want? What’s possible to transform our current situation?”
Here’s an example of the power of that question. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, one of our executive doctoral students, Gamini Hewawasam, knew it would be a challenge for his Sri Lanka-based manufacturing company. Shipments weren’t getting out of the country, new orders weren’t coming in, and cash-on-hand was limited. So after considering how he and his team could transform, Hewawasam pivoted to start a new business that builds balcony greenhouses for Sri Lanka’s urban residences. The government has encouraged citizens to increase cultivation; the new company, Goviyoo, builds greenhouses that allow individuals to help supply their own food year-round. This dramatic pivot happened because Hewawasam asked, “What’s possible to transform our current situation?”
Invest in rest to stay healthy
Finally, one of the best ways to prevent grumpiness is to get the rest you need. Researchers have found that less sleep lowers our emotional intelligence and may increase your likelihood of depression and other mental health challenges.
Entrepreneurs and executives are especially likely to find it hard to get rest during this season. “When the pandemic hit, I was anxious and working day and night to assure myself that I was doing everything that I needed to do to the protect and sustain the company and our team,” says Gloria Shealey, CEO of The Daniele Company, a North Carolina-based commercial construction firm. “I soon learned that I needed to make sure that I was getting proper rest, not just sleep but down time.”
(For more on the importance of downtime, see this article on why your organization needs you to take a vacation.)
Dave Schreiner, CEO of KSB Hospital in Dixon, Illinois, found the same thing. As his hospital adjusted to the changes brought by Covid-19, Schreiner and his vice presidents worked for 57 days in a row. Eventually, they ran out of adrenaline and began to experience profound fatigue.
“I reacted by requiring them to rotate days off during the week,” Schreiner says. “This pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. I was so focused on urgently getting things done that I neglected the human breaking point factor. I am now making it a point to touch base regularly and individually with my leaders to gauge how they are feeling, both personally and professionally.”
This pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint. Unfortunately, the latest global infection rates show that Schreiner is right. We can expect the challenges and disruption that the coronavirus has brought to linger. But the bad moods don’t have to. We hope these ideas have inspired you to seek out positive emotions, look for generative ideas, and make sure you get the rest you need to recover.
Amber A. Johnson, Ph.D. Chief Communications Officer; Senior Research Associate; Executive Recruiter, Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University