Informal networks

Beware the office downer: How to contain the bad vibes

October 10, 2012: 10:27 AM ET

Research suggests that negative attitudes at work stand to contaminate a company's culture. But there are a few antidotes to this problem.angry-worker

FORTUNE -- Goodness knows, plenty workers have reason to complain these days. And yet, most every office has a couple people who take that right a little too liberally -- they are, as a rule obtrusively upset.

They are what management expert Rob Cross calls "de-energizers:" "The people who just suck the life out of the room with the way they interact or tones they take."

Life-sucking is, without doubt, counter-productive to a healthy workplace, and many a worker would probably prefer to avoid the negative effects of de-energizers. To do so, they might first have to buy into a system that leadership experts call the "informal network." This network exists outside of the official corporate food chain. Instead, it is built on connections between people who, regardless of rank, are either key motivators, energy drainers, or somewhere in between. Cross claims it's possible to actually map the energy flow through the informal network at an organization.

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If all this seems a little floofy to you, you're not alone. Both Cross and Booz & Company senior partner Jon Katzenbach have worked with high-level managers who resist the concept that there is a workplace structure outside of the one they know and control. "If you ask people in the upper levels of an organization to identify the best motivators, they won't pick them right," Katzenbach says.

And yet, with a little digging, you can unearth these networks. "We can create diagrams and other visuals that show the connections amongst the people," says Cross, who is a professor at University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce. Those diagrams map who interacts with whom and how often. "Then we overlay the engagement scores and career satisfaction scores," Cross continues, and you can pinpoint your motivating and de-energizing employees.

Why do this? There's evidence that de-energizers truly hurt a company. In a 1994 paper published in The Journal of Vocational Behavior, researchers Lawrence Necowitz and Mary Roznowski found that people who have a baseline negative outlook about work tend to withdraw more from productive work behavior than their colleagues, regardless of how satisfied they feel about their jobs. "It may be that these individuals focus on the negative aspects of their jobs even under otherwise pleasant conditions," the paper suggests. More

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