Attitudes are contagious. Make yours worth catching.

Donna Sollenberger, EVP & CEO, UTMB Health SystemI have always considered myself an optimistic person. Even when things are not going well, I generally try to see the positive side of the situation. Although I can’t always see the positive benefits at the immediate moment something is happening, I’ve learned that with time, lessons will surface from whatever it was that caused me concern or discomfort, giving me a better perspective.

A few years ago, I told you all the story of how I fought my wet kitchen tile, and the tile won. I had started my morning the way I usually do. I got up, got ready for work, and went into the kitchen to grab my lunch from the refrigerator. As I rounded the corner, I was greeted by small bugs all over my kitchen floor, so I sprayed them with insect spray. Afterward, I mopped up the mess. With the chore completed, I picked up my keys and briefcase, then I started walking across the kitchen floor again to get my lunch, even though I knew it was risky to walk on a slick floor. And guess what happened? I slipped and broke my leg!

I was devastated to learn that the type of fracture I had meant that I would not be able to put any weight on my leg for two months. I was grateful I did not need surgery, but I could not imagine how I would survive for two months stuck in a chair or lying down. On top of that, my injury meant that I would have to cancel a long-planned trip that had been on my bucket list. This dampened my spirits at first, but once I realized that my attitude was not helping my family and friends who were trying to help me, I decided I immediately needed to change my attitude. I cannot control everything that happens to me, but I can control how I react to it!

There is a quote that I like: “Attitudes are contagious. Make yours worth catching.” It’s really true. There are certain people that I love being around, because they always lift my mood. My husband is one of those people. He smiles all the time. Even when I want to be mad at him for something, he smiles, and I can no longer be angry. This really used to annoy me! When I asked him why he always does this, he reminded me that it is hard to stay mad at a person who is smiling. It’s true, his positive attitude is contagious!

I think it is also important to remember that our attitude is not only conveyed with words. Attitudes can be conveyed by facial expressions, body language or even the tone of one’s voice. Usually, even if you think you are masking the fact that you are in a poor mood, you probably are not—people tend to pick up on these subtle, non-verbal clues. When we aren’t in the best of moods, sometimes simply taking a few deep breaths or going for a short walk can help us get back into a better state of mind.

When it comes to speaking with others, I generally try to put myself in the other person’s shoes, particularly when I feel as though someone is asking a lot of me, they are being very demanding, or I am speaking with someone who is dealing with something very difficult. I try to project a positive attitude in these situations, because I have found that this helps others feel more positive about whatever reason they have come to me. On the other hand, I have noticed that when I am in a bad mood, that has an influence on the mood of those around me. This is why I believe in the importance of starting every day with the intention of bringing a positive attitude and positive energy to the workplace.

In fact, I recently read an article that said the mood in which we first come to work can affect our entire job performance. When we are in a good mood, we have more energy, we are more focused, more articulate, and we are open to new ideas. However, when we are not in a good mood, we are more easily distracted, less focused and less creative. For example, consider how this comes into play when working with others to solve a problem. Here are a couple of scenarios:

Scenario 1: Have you ever brought a problem or an idea to a team for discussion? Imagine the responses you received were something along the lines of the following: “Things are different here. It won’t work,” or “We’ve tried that before, and it doesn’t work,” or, “If it’s not that broken, don’t fix it,” or “Just try to fit in and ignore it. Maybe the problem will go away.” How would you feel after that type of encounter? Disappointed? Discouraged? Frustrated? After you left that meeting, you might remain focused on those feelings, and this would likely show through in your attitude. Meanwhile, the team members who did not have a positive attitude about finding a solution to the problem potentially missed out on an opportunity to make a beneficial change; additionally, they may very well have stifled the creativity of the group in the future.

Scenario 2: Now, let’s take the same situation, but this time, the types of responses you heard were, “It will be hard, but if we put our heads together, surely we will find a solution,” or, “We have tried that here in the past, but times are different now, so let’s see if it will work,” or, “I think it is a great idea to try and solve this, but there may be a step or two we have to complete first in order to tackle this.” How might this make you feel? Hopeful? Confident? Valued? All of these feelings can also show through in your attitude. And on the other side of the coin, the team is building a culture that welcomes the exploration of creative solutions.

I know that for me, I definitely want to work with the supportive individuals in the second scenario. I would much rather be surrounded by people with a “can do” attitude. I also prefer to be around individuals who want me to be engaged, work with me as part of a team, and desire to solve problems or make necessary changes.

I remember once many years ago, a friend I worked with who was a very successful researcher came into my office with a problem. He told me he was certain I would never be able to help him solve it, but he wanted me to help him change his perception of the problem.

I told my friend, “You know, I am an optimist. I think everything can be solved. We just need to keep looking.”

“Do you know the problem with being an optimist, Donna?” he asked. “The problem with being an optimist is that you are never pleasantly surprised.”

To this day, I disagree with my friend! I do not believe that I should change my whole attitude to one of doubt just so I can be surprised when something does go right. I choose to remain optimistic about my life and my work! When I am positive, I see more possibilities than problems. When I am optimistic, I connect better with those around me. This is because we all feed off positive energy.

In the coming week, let’s all try to focus on bringing positive energy to UTMB. Even when we are not in as good a mood as we could be, let’s try to refocus our energy in a more positive direction. Whether as an individual or as a team, a positive attitude makes a big difference, and most of all, it helps us better serve our patients and their loved ones. If we all give this a try, and we notice how our good mood affects our interactions with others, we will find our positive attitude has been contagious, and we will be surrounded with positive, “can do” people!