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The Poison: It’s Contagious!


The natural law of conservation of energy states that energy cannot be created, nor destroyed, merely transferred and radiated into the surrounding environment. This seems to be true of emotion, too: We radiate our feelings, sending waves of emotional information into our environment and to the people around us. And emotions are contagious: without saying a word we literally catch one another’s feelings and moods.

And feelings, of course, impact our behavior and even our cognitive effectiveness. When we are gripped by fear, anxiety or anger, we react. Our brains are shouting “Danger! Danger!” and we run away, fight back or shut down. Either way, our creativity dwindles, we become rigid, we focus on the wrong things. We make decisions too fast, or too slowly, and for the wrong reasons.

That’s one of the reasons why toxic bosses are so dangerous—their poisonous emotions cause us to sink to the lowest common denominator. Worse, when destructive emotions emanate from the most powerful amongst us, we catch the disease, then spread the pain. It’s not long before we live and work in an environment that is caustic, dissonant, and just plain miserable.

So what can you do in the face of pervasive negativity?

Don’t take it personally! Do not let these people touch your self esteem. Don’t, whatever you do, compromise your values in the face of their toxic emotions. It’s surprisingly easy to slip and do things we would otherwise never do, by the way, so monitor your reactions to these people carefully. Be mindful of the (natural) urges you have to fight back vindictively, to sabotage, to undermine. If you do this, you become part of the problem.

Remember, the poison is his or hers, not yours! You have a choice about whether you mirror destructive emotions, moods or styles. This is harder than it sounds, because of the contagious nature of emotions, and because of the power dynamics between leaders and followers. You’ll need to be really clear about what part of a particular situation or problem is yours, what is theirs. Then, consciously manage your boundaries so the toxins can’t get in.

Fight the temptation to feel victimized by the tyrants around you! Victims feed the poison. Recognize and act on your personal power and resilience. Maybe you feel can’t really “do” anything to stop these people, and maybe that’s true. But you can control your own reaction, and you can proactively work to find ways to improve your situation.

Stop the madness! You have a choice about whether you share toxicity or not. You have a lot more control over your own environment than you may think. Act on it. Chances are, people look to you for guidance and leadership—take this responsibility seriously. Try, as best you can, to create resonance in your relationships and with the teams you work with.


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