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Checking your bad mood at the office door

Imnage: Woman bending pencil
"A woman can be perceived as Miss Congeniality for six or seven months, but she does that one bitchy thing and that label will stay with her for a year or two," one management consultant says.Getty Images
/ Source: Forbes

The ability to be positive is an essential leadership skill and responsibility. So take a deep breath and put on a happy face. Here's how.

Having a positive attitude, even striving for cheerful, in the workplace isn't always easy. Pat Heim recalls a conference room confrontation between two men that had the executives shouting over each other and pounding their fists on the table. Heim was one of the uncomfortable bystanders and, for her, it was an object lesson in how moods matter at work.

That kind of outburst is bad form for any professional, but it's worth noting up front that overly emotional or moody behavior is often judged more harshly when it comes from a woman, says Heim, CEO of the Heim Group, a consulting firm that specializes in gender differences in the workplace, and author of "Hardball for Women: Winning at the Game of Business."

"A woman can be perceived as Miss Congeniality for six or seven months, but she does that one bitchy thing and that label will stay with her for a year or two," agrees Courtney Lynch, co-founder of Lead Star, a leadership consulting group out of Fairfax, Va.

While the implications of an angry outburst — or even a sarcastic eye roll — can have a long-lasting impact on an executive's authority, it can also rock her entire team. Research confirms that a sour mood has a ripple effect. Sigal Barsade, Ph.D., an associate professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has done several studies on "emotional contagions" in professional settings and found that, yes, you can catch a bad mood.

Not quite up there with swine flu, but certainly no manager wants negativity spreading throughout her office — especially if she herself is Ground Zero.

The ability to manage your emotions is an essential leadership skill and responsibility. The best managers make the connection between negativity in the workplace and a negative balance sheet. To make the obvious and opposite point, according to Professor Barsade's 2007 study co-authored by Donald Gibson, who is an associate professor of management at the Dolan School of Business at Fairfield University: "Expressing positive emotions and moods tends to enhance performance at individual, group and organizational levels."

"Especially with the economy right now, people look to leaders for calm in a chaotic environment," says Lynch, co-author of "Leading from the Front: No-Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women."

People generally experience a bad or angry mood as a response to fury, fear or failure — real or perceived. So what do you do when a phone call from your sitter reporting that your twins just flooded the bathroom — again — strikes just as you're heading into that client meeting?

The first step is self awareness followed by self control. Admit to yourself that, yes, you're in bad mood, and then make sure you keep your crabbiness under wraps. "Some people think, 'This is just my thing — I cry, I scream, I get moody,'" says Lynch. "But that the type of stuff alienates people and erodes your credibility."

What can you do? ForbesWoman asked experts in integrative medicine and psychology to share the advice they tell their clients. Some of their suggestions offer a new take (who knew the benefits of a little foot stomping?) while others are wise words worth repeating.

When you're feeling cranky, it's often easy to pinpoint (or point fingers at) the problem: your boss, your husband, traffic. But while any one or all may be a problem at the moment, they are not in control of your reaction to them. You are.

Managing how you respond to others is oftentimes simply a matter of managing your thoughts, says Steven Alper, LSCW, a consultant with the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine who teaches stress-reduction techniques to executives. For example, if your boss gives you an extremely tight deadline for a project, it's easy to get caught in an endless spin cycle of whining: I can't believe she did this to me again! Doesn't she realize I have 10 other things to do this week? Not to mention a family at home that needs me — not that she would know what that's like.

In other words, you're wasting precious time and energy ruminating about the past (all those other 11th-hour assignments) and fretting about the future (not finishing in time to get your kids from daycare). The solution, instead, is to bring yourself into the present. Either get to work, recruit help or explain to your boss why the deadline is unrealistic.

To short-circuit those recurring negative thought patterns, Alper recommends thinking not on, but with your feet. "We literally feel the thinking in our heads, so you want to get away from where the thinking is going on and drop into the body," he says.

Place your feet firmly on the floor (either standing or sitting — and it's OK to stomp each foot just once) and feel the sensation of the soles of your feet pressing on the surface. This will help you get you out of fantasyland and onto solid ground.

A foul mood may start in the brain, but it also has a physical effect — calling for a physical solution. Proper breathing techniques can help keep a bad mood from turning into a raised voice or nasty IM.

Alper explains that the value of "taking a breath" isn't simply a matter of pushing the pause button. When something upsets us, like a hostile co-worker, we often freeze — and stop breathing. "When we perceive a threat, the primitive part of our brain prepares the body to fight, flee or freeze by sending blood to our arms and legs — and away from the brain — so you feel more confused," he says.

Slow, deep and rhythmic breathing can dissipate that response. "When you take a deep breath, the message that goes to the brain is, OK, all clear,'" says Alper.

To get the most out of deep-breathing strategies, he recommends practicing them for at least 10 minutes each day; otherwise it will be very difficult to access that relaxation state in a moment of crisis. "It's like batting practice or basic training in sports," he says. "You have to learn the basic skills so that you can deploy them in a game situation."

Exercise is another very simple, effective way to check out of the brain and into the body. Unfortunately, when the client meeting is in 15 minutes, you can't exactly duck out for a Pilates class or a five-mile run.

Fortunately, you don't have to. Robert Thayer, a professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, found that mood improves dramatically after a brisk walk of only about 10 to 15 minutes. "It has an immediate and positive effect," says Thayer, who is the author of several books on mood, including The Origin of Everyday Moods. "It both releases tension in the muscles and energizes the body."

Bad moods are inevitable, but there are even more ways to work past them. We can help you with more negativity busters.