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I’m Thankful (I Think): Promoting Positivity in the Workplace During Shaky Times

Posted by Elaine Varelas  November 1, 2009 10:00 AM

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By Elaine Varelas

Thanksgiving is only a few weeks away, yet many of us are struggling to find reasons to be thankful. The economy has us feeling stressed and worn out. Yes, we’re all thankful to have jobs, but the worries brought on by the economy can be overwhelming. With the holidays quickly approaching, many people are getting anxious about the expenses of the season (gifts, parties, travel, oh my!) And we haven’t even mentioned the looming flu season, which is predicted to be one of the most aggressive yet. It’s no wonder employees are feeling a little down at work.

While there isn’t a way to seal off the building to make sure negative thoughts or feelings don’t sneak in, HR managers can curb negativity so that it doesn’t take over the workplace and undermine productivity. It is possible to keep people positive without piping endorphins through the ventilation system

While HR managers can’t single-handedly revive the housing market, funnel money back into employees’ shrinking 401Ks, or add some zeros to the bonus checks (if there even are bonus checks this year), they can help conquer negativity and boost positivity in the workplace in some small, yet profound ways. Here’s how:

Let it out—Open communication is always important in the workplace, but it can hold special significance during turbulent economic times. Squash those rumors before they have a chance to scurry through the cubicle spreading dread and unease. Set up systems for two-way communication by encouraging employees to voice their concerns with their managers. Some teams may want to host “venting sessions,” for people to share their worries and brainstorm some possible solutions. This allows employees to “unload” and have their voices heard. It can also lead to some constructive and innovative ways to tackle some of the company’s woes. Make sure to adopt some of the identified issues to work on, and recruit employees to participate on committees so that everyone feels like part of the team.

Share and tell—This recession is affecting us all. Everyone knows it is a tough time, but employees may want to hear how they fit into the big picture. HR managers can encourage company leadership to speak with employees about the state of the business, share the company’s strategy and direction, and reiterate how important every member of the team is to the company’s future.

Recognize accomplishments—In a down economy, achievements may seem scarce, but it is important to acknowledge even small successes. People may also need to redefine what success means. In robust times, teams may get jazzed about landing a new client, but in this economy it may be appropriate to celebrate not losing a client. Successes can be recognized verbally or with a small token, such as a coffee card or a “Take the Afternoon Off” pass.

Reward “tattling”—Managers can’t always be the ones to recognize good works. Set up a system that makes it easier for colleagues to “tell on” each other. In addition to recognizing achievements, recognize employees for reporting those achievements. This encourages people to keep aware of what others are working on, share goals, and support each other—all key ingredients for a positive workplace.

Lead by example—Practice “little acts of kindness” and encourage managers and team leaders to do the same. Are you running out for coffee? Bring back a round for the office. Is it a nice day? Send people outside for a walk to soak up a few minutes of sun. These small acts can result in a big attitude adjustment and can help instill a culture of appreciation, cooperativeness, and collegiality.

Mind Your Manners—When we’re feeling down or stressed, many of us tend to get cranky, snappy, or downright mean. Be generous with your “pleases” and “thank yous,” . Put down the blackberry, and look people in the eye. Show them that you are genuinely interested in what they have to say. Speak to managers about creating a respectful and civil work environment and offer them support when they feel overwhelmed.

Positivity is contagious—Unlike H1N1, positivity is a condition most people wouldn’t mind catching. Stroll through the office with a big smile plastered on your face and see how others will join you (yes, some may be laughing at you and not with you, but you still caused a chuckle). Everything you do has an impact on those around you. Make a concerted effort to stay upbeat and be generous with your compliments.

Negativity can fester, but positivity can too. If it is encouraged and rewarded at work, it is sure to catch on. Being a part of a work environment that is respectful, positive, and fun is something we can all be thankful for.

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About HR Columns

Featuring human resources advice and columns from The Boston Globe's On Staffing and Hire Authority writers.