Q. I finally got my first job in the area that I have been striving to get into and I should be happy, but the atmosphere at work is quite negative. There are a lot of people who have been there for years and they just moan. They have no idea how lucky they are. How can I make things better? Or should I just seek to move on as soon as possible? Name supplied
A. Congratulations on getting the job, and for being able to ‘stand aside’ long enough to see what is going on. The immediate challenge could be what scientific literature calls ‘emotional contagion’, where we catch other people’s feelings just like we do a virus. The unconscious cause is mirror neurons: brain cells which fire when we see emotion in other people. This could be a habit which nobody deliberately intends.
So, where does this leave you, as presumably one of the more junior people at work? There are three possible tactics to try: firstly, distract yourself, because the temptation is to focus more on people who are negative. You can go so far as to consciously limit eye-contact with the culprits, or wear a pair of obvious headphones. Secondly, if you are consistently calm and smiling, you’ll create a little island and others might join your happy place – not least because you will be more productive; and research shows that serenity might be the most contagious emotion of all.
Finally, (or maybe firstly if you are brave), there’s the direct approach: ‘I don’t know whether you realise this, or what I might be missing, but the atmosphere feels quite negative here. How can I make things better?’
Whatever your line of work, there will be times when you need to state your position and smooth the way for others to be open in return. Even if you decide to move on, that’s a valuable skill to start practising now. If you decide to leave, this experience will still have been worth it.
Mary Fenwick is a business coach, journalist, fundraiser, mother, divorcée and widow. Follow Mary on Twitter @MJFenwick. Got a question for Mary? Email email@example.com, with ‘MARY’ in the subject line.