Good Vibes: Create a Positive Workplace to Boost Profits

Phillip Perry Square Headshot

Negative businesses have a tough time making money. Employees with bad attitudes tend to pull back and maximize job security rather than create innovative solutions to business problems. Even worse, customers feel unwanted and abandoned.

"Negative thinking carries a real cost in terms of workplace productivity," says John Wagner, a clinical counselor in Ft. Mitchell, Ky. "Much of that cost results from poor employee performance."

In the worst cases, adds Wagner, toxic workplaces cause the best employees to jump ship for the competition. Finding, hiring and training replacements require investments in time and money that could be better spent elsewhere.

You can avoid these costly matters by creating a positive environment in your own workplace. Here's how.

Change happens

Negative people create negative workplaces. It stands to reason, then, that to create a productive business environment you need to change the thinking of those who contribute to a toxic one. Your entire staff needs to adopt a positive mental attitude (or PMA).

Take Gloomy Gus — one of your longtime workers and chief negative thinker. Maybe you think he'll never change his attitude. But evidence suggests he can.

"Over the past few decades, scientific research has disproved the idea that our brains are set in stone once we reach our late twenties," says Sandy Weaver Carman, an Atlanta-based management consultant. "In fact, we can learn new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at the world."

Granted, people do tend to resist change. But that's a matter of choice. "Very often, people simply do not want to go to the trouble of learning anything new," Carman says. "They need to be motivated." That means Gus needs to be helped to start thinking of life as a glass half full instead of half empty.

Start with #1

So how do you motivate Gloomy Gus and employees like him? Start by setting an example. "The person in charge sets the tone for the entire workplace," says Julie Alexander, a management consultant in Garland, Texas. "People take their cues from the boss."

Unfortunately, it's easy to fall off track when faced with challenging business events. To maintain a positive attitude, we must adopt patterns of behavior that reinforce our productive mindset in the worst of times. And behavior is the key: We cannot control our emotions, but we can control how we respond to our emotions.

"Two behaviors tend to impact our mental state," says Tina Hallis, a management consultant in Madison, Wisc. "The first is what we choose to think, and the second is what we choose to do on a moment to moment basis. Those little things add up."

Such habits need not be major. They can be as inconsequential as buying coffee for the security guard, or taking a walk in the fresh air each morning before work. And they will differ with each person. For some ideas on how to keep your own positive gears running, see the sidebar, "How to Stay Happy."

Determining to maintain a PMA is a great first step—but it's also important to get feedback on how you're doing. What does your staff think about your attitude? Your image may not be as positive as you imagine.

"Most of us think we're happy go lucky," Carman says, "But we may be showing the world something much different. Ask your staff how you look to them. Then listen to their responses. If they say you tend to be gruff then it's time to re-think your style."

Pass it on

Once you've put yourself together, encourage your employees to follow your example. How? Alexander suggests building a work environment around the recipe of CARE: Collaboration, Attitude, Responsibility and Enthusiasm.

Here's what each ingredient of that recipe means:

  • Collaboration. A successful business results from cooperative effort. No one person is a lone ranger.
  • Attitude. Everyone is encouraged to maintain a PMA at all times. Share this story's sidebar, "How to Stay Happy," with all of your staff members.
  • Responsibility. Every employee must learn to "own" a customer's problem. That means following through on every sales and service initiative until the customer is satisfied.
  • Enthusiasm. Customers notice right away when employees are enthusiastic about their work. Exhibit enthusiasm about your own duties and invite your staff to follow suit.

The secret to getting CARE in place: Quality engagement with employees. "You need to be a good communicator, and encourage good communication among your staff members," Alexander says. "Be open to one-on-one conversations, and schedule regular staff meetings in which people feel they are listened to and that their opinions matter."

Stay alert when conversing with your staff. "Focus on being present when people talk with you," Carman says. "Bosses too often let their minds wander." With their attention pulled in so many directions, supervisors might glance at their phones or their watches, or over the shoulders of the people with whom they are talking.

"Let go of the toy and be present," Carman says. "If people feel like you value them they will be happier. And so will you."

Let it go

Beyond quality communication, you can also encourage a PMA by letting people exercise their creativity in their daily duties. "When you delegate, let the tasks go," Wagner says. "Lighten up. Not trusting people to make the right decisions will limit them."

People cannot rise up to low expectations, Wagner says. "If you don't believe your team can handle a task, it probably won't. Keep training people and focus on their strengths."
Help people create new solutions by being specific about what you want. "People want to live up to others' expectations," Alexander says. "But if those expectations are not made clear people flounder and do not know what to do."

Of course, people will make errors. When that happens, don't be judgmental. Encourage your staff to learn from mistakes and try again. "Employees are creative and productive when they are released from the fear that they are not allowed to mess up," Wagner says. "And when they know they are free to ask for help, mistakes are corrected quickly."

All of the above tips have one thing in common: They describe behaviors that lead to positive thinking. That's a more effective approach than trying to browbeat people into to being happy.

"You want to help your employees be happier thinkers," Carman says. "But you have to be careful: You can't tell people how to think. You do not want to be the 'happiness police' or 'big brother.'"

Follow through

Creating a happy, productive workplace is a long game. It's not a matter of flicking a switch or reading a book. You need to consciously adopt good mental habits and motivate others to do the same.

While the process takes time, everything starts with individual managerial commitment. "You have to want your employees to be more positive in their thinking," Hallis says. "You have to feel it's worth the effort."


How to Stay Happy

Good habits lead to good mental attitudes. Four experts on psychology offer their best ideas for getting and staying in the groove:

  • "Exercise regularly. Take care of yourself."
  • "Watch the words you say to yourself. Reframe your thoughts about bad events into statements that create opportunity."
  • "Take yourself lightly. When we laugh at ourselves we learn more quickly from our mistakes."

— John Wagner, Ft. Mitchell, Ky.

  • "Spend 20 minutes out in the fresh air before going into the office."
  • "Spread random goodness. When you stop for coffee, get one for the security guard."
  • "Find a good thing to celebrate everyday with your staff."

— Sandy Weaver Carman, Atlanta

  • "Every now and then take the staff out for drinks or a snack."
  • "When you feel workplace stress, pause and take three to five slow, deep breaths."
  • "At the end of each day think back and dwell on two or three good things that happened."

— Tina Hallis, Madison, Wisc.

  • "When you mess up, fess up. Managers who do that gain respect from employees."
  • "Spend one hour a day doing what you enjoy."
  • "Create opportunities for the staff to have fun. Encourage levity in the workplace that does not come at someone else's expense."

— Julie Alexander, Garland, Tx.


How to Handle Gloomy Gus

Nothing pleases Gloomy Gus. He makes disparaging remarks about the business. He's critical of others. And he's down in the dumps all the time.

Don't let things ride. "A negative employee can be a huge detriment to your business," says Tina Hallis, a management consultant in Madison, Wisc. ( "It's a bottom line issue because the bad psychological attitude of one employee can spread to others, and impact customer service and productivity."

Understand that it's beyond your power as a manager to transform the negative thinker. "The only person you can really change is yourself," says Hallis. "But you can certainly reach out and see if Gus is open to positive input." Hallis suggests conducting a conversation with Gus along these lines: "I am concerned about you. Recently I heard you say some troubling things." (Here, describe specific negative remarks and behaviors you have observed). "How can we help?"

Present your remarks as the result of genuine concern for Gus rather than an attempt to punish or threaten. If Gus opens up with a statement about what is causing his negative thinking, express understanding and ask what specific steps you can take to help resolve the matter.

It's possible that Gus will resist your overture and express an unwillingness to share what's troubling him. If, so, says Hallis, it's important to communicate to Gus the importance of changing his behavior. Hallis suggests using words such as these: "The workplace is not the right environment to vent, or to share your negative thoughts. Please save them for home or keep to yourself."

While you need to give Gus some time to pull himself together, you also need to make sure he does not infect others with his bad attitude. "Negativity is contagious," says Hallis. "One negative employee can infect the whole group. Consider moving Gus to another spot where he interacts with fewer people, but can still employ his strengths for your organization."


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