Published: March 13, 2013

It was a battle of emotional immune systems. The team's leader was burned out. He had been in his role too long without growth or challenge. Each day, he dragged himself into work, put in his hours, produced the minimum necessary to keep his job, left at 5:00 on the nose, and returned home to refuel sufficiently to come back and do it again. Another day...another dollar. Most of his direct reports followed his lead and sleepwalked through their careers...except one.

The most recently hired manager didn’t fit very well in the sleepwalking culture. When she accepted the job, she inherited three direct reports who bristled whenever she challenged the apathetic attitude that seemed to have permeated the workplace. The rules of engagement appeared to be designed to maintain a mediocre product and prevent anyone from ever having to manage change.

Eyes up and deep in thought on her way back to the train station for her daily commute, she found herself amongst a herd of others all staring at the ground or their smartphones as they marched their well-worn paths. Just as she began to question her decision to accept this job, an oncoming stranger made eye contact and smiled. Without hesitation, she smiled back and then began delivering smiles to anyone’s eyes she could meet in the train station. She managed to ignite smiles on seven other commuters within the next few minutes.

This was a test. If emotions are so contagious, she thought, what’s to stop me from awakening my team of three sleepwalkers? At the first opportunity, she scheduled a meeting with her boss and asked that her team’s performance expectations be raised from the traditional annual target. Not surprisingly, his eyes lit up and he smiled when she came beaming into his office to request the challenge. As the day wore on, every interaction was designed to infuse energy in someone else. Without exception, every exchange finished more positively than it had started.

It takes more than one high performer to transform a culture. Most stagnant workplace cultures find a way to eliminate energetic employees who try to elevate the attitude and productivity of their peers. But it forces everyone to engage their emotional immune system to allow the healthy people in and fend off the sick. We are all accountable for the moods we deliver and the moods we receive.

What contagion would you like to spread today?

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.