The Contagious Nature of Negativity

This blog is a reflection on leadership learning by a British Army Officer on an expedition that saw a team of 7 individuals complete a 210 mile trek across the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, with an ascent change of 24,000m, taking 13 days.  At different parts of the trek the group experienced negativity within it and it was interesting to see how this either ‘infected’ or, was deflected, by the group. Global Integration provided some sponsorship which helped make the trip a reality. 

Infectious Nature of Negativity

My most vivid recollection of negativity was about half way through the trip, when I was accompanying the admin party on our way from Roads End to Vermillion Valley Resort.  It was roughly a 150 miles of driving, on a mixture of ‘A-roads’ and single tracks with cliff drops either side.  As we travelled along this journey it was striking how negative the admin party were, how they had become pessimistic about the rest of trip and how everything had developed into a chore and not something to be enjoyed.  A once in a lifetime opportunity, with views that were breath-taking had become an inconvenience.  Why? Because of the impact of the negative thoughts of a key influencer within that group who had subsequently shaped the thoughts of those around them.  They had changed a group ethos into a collection of individuals complaining about their personal problems. The negative thinking felt like a common cold, that had started very minor – a few events which had been quite frustrating, to what had now developed into a full virus which had taken over the group. The negativity seemed to be in full cycle and it seemed extremely difficult to stop, from something that originated from one individual it was now outside their control.  The environment was mentally draining and by the end of the 48 hours with the ‘group’ my glasses had become significantly tinted, with a skewed view of the trip.

Impact of Positive Leadership

We had just completed our second day and had sustained our first, and only, injury.  This had resulted in four members of the team carrying his rucksack on an improvised stretcher for approximately 8 miles.  The pace had been extremely slow and also very frustrating. We had people tripping over each other on the narrow path and we finished the day in a location 5 miles short of where we wanted to be.  We were mentally and physically tired.  Yet there was still an optimistic view to the trek. We had 190 miles still to complete, a casualty to extract off the mountain and our bodies felt like they had been hit ‘by a train’.  Yet people were still content on wanting to complete the trip ‘because he (team leader) was so passionate about the expedition” and that they felt supported by their mates around them.  The ethos and the character of the group was significantly different from the admin party and I personally believe it was through the positive environment created – primarily due to the team leaders ethos – that meant even though negative events still happened, they were overcome and not dwelled upon.  It was as if the group had developed an immune system to these negative events, an ethos that allowed them to happen but to be overcome.

Short Term Goals and the Power of the Individual

So what was the difference? The importance of an optimistic and a positive – yet realistic – viewpoint from those people in charge is crucial. The impact this attitude has among the team is contagious and can pull the everyone together even after the most frustrating day. However it is not an important fact for the team leader, but also the key influencers.  It only takes one individual to continually dwell on a negative event to slowly infect the team with a negative ethos. I also felt that it was easier to focus on the negatives rather than the positives when things became difficult, so it was vitally important for the ourselves to remain focused on the short term goals – this was achieved through breaking the day into legs – to stay optimistic by achieving continual success.  It is easy to understand the importance of creating a positive atmosphere within a team; however it shouldn’t be underestimated the ease in which negativity can creep in, and how it turns a team into a collection of individuals very quickly.  Developing our team ethos to create an ‘immune’ system to negativity was key to our success in completing the expedition. Yet as with all immune systems we are still susceptible to the common cold and therefore have to plan on how to manage these symptoms when they arise; something I need to work on in the future.

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