How to Use Your Super Power for Good

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I folded my bike and carried it into the lobby of the office building in midtown Manhattan. The security guard behind the desk looked up at me, grimaced, then looked down again and growled something indecipherable.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

He sighed loudly and didn’t say anything for a moment. Then, without bothering to look at me, he said, “You’re not coming in here with that.”

I was already jittery because of a near miss with a taxi on the ride over, and this deflated me even more. It wasn’t his message — I’ve faced many security guards who don’t like to permit bicycles into their buildings — it was his cold, disdainful tone.

I tried to stay calm and upbeat. I showed him how small it was, folded. I told him I had a bag I could put it in. He repeated the same line.

Finally, after citing the The Bicycle Access to Office Buildings Law, which requires New York City buildings with freight elevators to admit bicycles, he let me in.

When I made it to the freight elevator, I smiled at the operator who was joking with some construction workers. He looked at me then looked back at his friends and kept talking. I waited uncomfortably for several minutes, and then asked him if he would take me to the 19th floor. He said something rude to his friends about tenants, took me up in silence, and left me in a small vestibule with a locked door but no clear way to enter.

He shut his door as I was asking him how to get in. “Try pushing the button,” he barked through the closed elevator door. I saw the button he meant and pushed. At this point I was feeling lower than low.

Then, like magic, my morning changed.

“Hi! You must be Peter. Welcome!” Lisa*, the receptionist, sang as she opened the door. She smiled, and then looked worried. “Why did you come up in the freight?”

I explained my morning and she frowned empathetically. “I’m so sorry, That’s terrible. Here, let me take your bike.”

I could have cried from happiness. In one second, Lisa turned my emotions around, from the negative spiral of anger, frustration, and despair to the positive spiral of relief, appreciation, and happiness.

And that’s when I realized: We all have super powers.

We can make people feel good or bad by as simple a thing as a gesture, an expression, a word, or a tone of voice.

But wait. Can I really blame my grumpiness on you? Isn’t each person responsible for his or her own mood?

Here’s what we know: Like the common cold, emotions are contagious. Caroline Bartel at New York University and Richard Saavedra at the University of Michigan studied 70 work groups across a variety of industries and found that people who worked together ended up sharing moods, good and bad. Moods converge.

This is particularly important to understand for people in positions of authority because leaders, more than anyone, set and spread the mood. If you’ve ever worked in an office, you know this from experience. If the boss is in a bad mood, conflicts increase. If she’s in a good mood, people lighten up.

Does that mean we aren’t responsible if we snap at someone in the hallway? That it’s really the fault of the guy who bumped into us on the subway and didn’t apologize?

Look at it this way: If you catch a cold from someone, does that mean you can go around sneezing on everyone else? You might be able to blame your mood on someone else, but you’re still responsible for what you pass to others.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to completely avoid infecting others when you have a cold. Several years ago I was asked to coach Renée, a senior manager in a retail company, who was receiving feedback that she was too harsh with her employees. She often raised her voice, criticized them mercilessly for mistakes, and humiliated them for not knowing things.

When I spoke to others in the office, I found out that the CEO to whom Renée reported treated his direct reports the same way. He was short-tempered, yelled a lot, and demanded perfection from others.

That didn’t make it okay for Renée to treat her direct reports that way; it just made it harder for her not to.

Which is a problem for the business because mood affects performance. According to research done by Sigal Barsade at Yale University, positive moods improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased performance.

So what’s the solution?

Know your emotions, be in touch with your moods, and think of them like the common cold. If you feel infected by bad cheer, take a deep breath, recognize how you’re feeling, and choose not to pass it on.

Instead, treat people with the empathy, care, and good humor that will make them feel happier, more connected, and more productive.

Here’s the good news: Barsade’s research found that positive moods are just as contagious as negative moods.

Is it really a choice though? If you’re in a bad mood, can you decide to be happy? I find it hard, inauthentic, even dishonest, to do feign happiness.

But I have found a pretty simple solution to turning it all around: Kindness.

No matter how bad a mood I’m in, I’ve found it pretty straightforward to treat others with kindness. And that, invariably, has a positive affect on those around me, which, as we’ve seen, has a positive affect on me. And, voilà, my mood changes for the better.

When Lisa brought me to my client’s office, I told him how my ugly morning had been turned around by his delightful receptionist. He responded with a story of his own. Once, when Lisa was sick and couldn’t come to work, a quiet and reserved man named Frank, acted as receptionist for the day. Frank was not the sing-song type.

But he was used to Lisa’s good cheer. Each morning, like everyone else in the office, he received her buoyant emails welcoming people to the office. And, on this particular day, when he was asked to fill in for Lisa, the mere memory of her lighthearted emotions was enough to influence Frank.

First thing that morning, on his own initiative, Frank wrote an email to the whole office that read: “It’s Pizzaaaaaaa for lunch! I hope everybody has a Happy Day!!!!!!”

*Names changed