2 Simple Actions to Create a Self-Sustaining Positive Culture

2 Simple Actions to Create a Self-Sustaining Positive Culture

Creating a positive self-sustaining environment is not about special surveys, programs or big organizational events that take considerable time, effort, and expense.  

In fact it is just the opposite.

How do we know this?

Let’s turn to an analog in the annals of big city management.  

“Broken Windows Theory” is frequently discussed by urban leaders when revitalizing their communities.  The theory’s premise is that by focusing on simple, visible, everyday crimes like graffiti and toll jumping – the so called “broken windows” – an overall atmosphere is created that is intolerant of crime and promotes positive social behavior.  Many credit the turnaround of New York City in the 1990s to Rudy Giuliani’s implementation of this theory while he was mayor.

As a leader, you can implement your version of the broken windows theory to create a positive self-sustaining and supportive environment by similarly focusing on two small and visible everyday actions that add up to big cultural change.

Your Impact is Much Greater Than You Think

In the 1960s, researcher Stanley Milgram recruited a few hundred people in Nebraska and had them each send a letter to a Boston businessman.  None of them knew the businessman directly but they were instructed to send their letters to people they did know and who they thought might be more likely to know the Boston native. For example, they might send their letter to a friend or relative who lived on the east coast.  Once that friend or relative received the letter, they were instructed to forward the letter to someone they knew who they thought might know the businessman.  This continued until the letter reached its final destination.

The result was, on average, it took 6 transfers of the letter to complete its journey.  In other words, each person in Nebraska was connected to the Boston businessman through only six degrees of separation.  In 2002, this experiment was repeated globally and included over 90,000 people.

The result was the same.  Each global connection was made on average through 6 steps.

It’s hard to imagine, but all of us are essentially connected to one another through just six connections.

And while we are all only 6 degrees from one another, in their book Connected, authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler report on research that demonstrates our actions influence and ripple through 3 of these 6 degrees – that what we do affects our direct connections (one degree), our connections’ connections (two degrees) and our connections’ connections’ connections (three degrees).  We have an amazing exponential impact.

How Does This Happen? Mirror Neurons – The Social Glue

Jane Warren in the Journal of Neuroscience conducted an experiment where participants listened to different recordings, some of happy positive emotions like laughter and amusement  while others were negative like fear and disgust.  The participants’ brains were evaluated by an MRI while they listened and researchers found that the areas of the brain that became active during these tests perfectly mirrored those that activate while directly experiencing the emotions.  This means simply hearing someone experience an emotion creates the same emotional response in our brains.  Similar research shows the same effect when we see an emotion like when someone cries.  This is our mirror neurons at work and they are the basis for something called emotional contagion.

Richard Boyatzis has published extensively on emotional contagion and what he refers to as “Resonant Leaders”.  These leaders are “authentic, transparent, genuine, and act with integrity”.  After being around resonant leaders, people feel energized and inspired.

Combining your three degrees of influence with the knowledge of mirror neurons leads us to two simple but powerful daily actions.

Two Simple Actions

Why the Face?

As we get older, naturally and through socialization we become less expressive.  Research shows that upon entering school as children we demonstrate more than 400 hundred expressions but once we leave high school we show less than 100.  The unfortunate side effect is our ability to connect and inspire is handicapped.  In his “Still Face Experiment”, University of Massachusetts’ professor, Edward Tronick, made video recordings of parents interacting with their children – talking, playing, and laughing and so on.  At one point in the experiment, the parents were asked to freeze their face.  Almost immediately the children reacted, initially confused, the children made whatever attempts they could to get a reaction from their parents.  When nothing worked, the children became more and more upset, cycling through multiple attempts to get any type of parental facial feedback.  Hormone testing confirmed the children’s cortisol stress levels increased along with their heart rates.  All of this just from parents freezing their facial response to their children.

How many times have you walked down the hall at work so wrapped up in your thoughts that you completely miss or ignore the people around you?  In meetings, are you really present?

When you are mentally checked out in these situations, you either have no facial expression or worse you might be expressing whatever thoughts you are having at the time. If you are frustrated, this translates like wildfire to those around you and others in their network.

How do you combat this?

Follow the sage advice a mentor of mine once gave me – “pretend the person you are with is the most interesting person you have ever met; then stop pretending, and they will be”.  Harvard’s Amy Cuddy calls this “fake it until you become it.”  As a result, your complete focus on them will transform your non-verbals, and your face will come to life.  Your blank distracted stares will be replaced by engaged warm expressions.  The person you are talking to will unconsciously mirror your expressions and because of the facial feedback hypothesis, they will feel what you are feeling and a positive connection will be made.  This connection becomes self-sustaining by transferring to the next people you both interact with.

  1.    Everyday Feedback

Every interaction you have is an opportunity to inspire others.  How you respond to another person’s good news is the key in doing exactly this.

University of California psychologist Shelly Gable and her colleagues have extensively studied how we respond to good news. Of the four possible responses you could make, surprisingly only one is generative.  

For example, say your employee has secured a contract in record time – you could respond in one of four ways.

  1. Completely ignoring the news
    Instead of responding to your employee’s work on the contract, you completely ignore it saying, “Are you ready for tomorrow’s presentation?”   Gable’s research shows ignoring the news is the most destructive response.  Before you conclude that you would never do this – consider all of those good news emails you get from people in your organization.  Are you responding or just deleting them?  And even if you are responding, are you doing so appropriately?  What is appropriate?  Keep reading.
  2. Blatant negative response
    “Wow, I’m surprised that contract went through since our position was really weak.  They must not have been paying much attention”.  In this response, you don’t ignore the news but you attribute success to something or someone other than your employee.  You just completely undervalued their contribution.  Again, you might think you would never be this blatant but you’ll see in the next response you don’t have to be to be just as harmful.
  3. Passive support
    “That’s great” or “congratulations”.  On the surface these responses seem acceptable.  They’re not.  It turns out these passively supportive comments are just as harmful as the blatantly negative responses. Surprised? Take a moment and think about a time when you were especially excited about an accomplishment and someone gave you a quick “that’s great” or “congratulations”.  How did you feel?  Did it build you up or were you a little deflated after their perfunctory comment?
  4. Enthusiastic Support with Follow-up Comments and/or Questions
    “Congratulations! I know you worked hard on getting the contract language exactly right.  Using our past experience with that vendor made all the difference.  This success will convert into a lot of incremental sales for the quarter.  Really strong work.”  This engaged response is where the magic happens and helps build and sustain your employee’s enthusiasm as well as their connection with you.

As a leader, your attitudes and actions affect not just your employees, but their colleagues and their colleagues’ colleagues.  You go viral every day.  Be present in every interaction and when you respond do so with genuine enthusiasm and watch your culture transform.


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