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  • Writer's pictureDr. Neal Nybo

3 guiding principles to stay positive and happy at work

Who knew negativity and unhappiness were so common at work? I suppose every one of us knows it at one time or another. I’ve just been reading through articles answering the question, how to stay positive and happy at work. If we added up the steps in all of them we could easily list more than a hundred unique ideas and recommendations.

I want to take it up a level and talk about three overarching principles that will help us stay positive and happy regardless of what steps we choose to take (or not take).


3 guiding principles to stay positive and happy at work

1. Start with yourself.

2. Understand you can’t change others, but you can influence them.

3. Kindness is the ultimate positivity and happiness generator.

These are hard won concepts I’ve developed over twenty years of managing, leading, coaching, and seeking to inspire myself and others. I have a love/hate relationship with each of them. I hate them because I really wish I didn’t have to start with myself. I wish I could change others. And, sometimes I wish there were shortcuts that didn’t require kindness, shortcuts like delegation and decree. I want to tell others (and myself) BE POSITIVE, BE HAPPY! After all, I have a job, I like most of what I do, and most of the people I do it with. That’s more than many people can say. But, saying it doesn’t change the feelings.

So, besides trying any of the 100 or more helpful steps, strategies, or ways, let’s understand and incorporate these three guiding principles.


1. Start with yourself.

I don’t know about you but I am so tempted to start with others. After all, aren’t they the reason we are negative and unhappy? The next principle explains why starting with others isn’t a winning strategy. But, even if it were, unless we look at ourselves first, we will likely say or do the wrong things and make things worse. There is a book and system called Crucial Conversations. I read the book. I took the training. I took the train the trainer training. Then I trained multiple staff teams. Crucial Conversations is that good. And, one of it’s first points is “Start with Self.” It says, “When you feel threatened you may abandon what you want to say and instead choose to protect yourself by, for example, staying quiet or punishing others.” We have all experienced this form of self-sabotage. Avoid it by beginning with yourself.

2. Understand you can’t change others, but you can influence them.

I have a friend whose HR department is always telling managers, you can require specific behaviors, not specific attitudes. They say this because they understand, fundamentally, we can’t change other people. Someone has said, Remember that the only person you can directly control is yourself. You are the best person to continually inspire, prod, and shape.

While we can’t change people, we can influence them. Look at any great athlete, artist, musician, or business person. Ask them who they studied with or where they went to school. Another professional who knows the industry will say, “Yes, I see your teacher in you.” “It’s obvious you studied with that person,” or “at that school.” At the most basic level, friends of our parents tell us, “you are so like your mother or father.” We recognize the power of influence.

Quick, who is the most cheerful person in your organization? Meetings and even the break room get more cheerful when they walk in, right? They aren’t changing anyone but they are influencing almost everyone.

3. Kindness is the ultimate positivity and happiness generator.

Acts of kindness actually have the power to impact three times the people than

positive impact, the person receiving it feels the positive impact and so does anyone

witnessing the act of kindness.

This is why we love hearing about and watching videos of people doing acts of

kindness. We feel better just watching them. There is a scientific reason for this.

It turns out micro-actions of kindness release hormones that contribute to our

good mood and overall well being.

One thing you can do to start with yourself, influence others, and use kindness.

In our book, Workplace Positivity, Nicole Phillips and I describe 30 micro-actions you can take. We give examples, background information, and an exercise worksheet for each micro-action that will get you started.

Here is an excerpt from the book with an easily implemented micro-action.



Change the Narrative

Deceiving our brains to keep a positive perspective can be a very helpful tool. We

do this by changing the narrative.

We are constantly telling ourselves stories. When someone lets the door slam in

our face or cuts us off in traffic or looks at us funny in a work meeting, we create a


We tell ourselves people are rude, they are inconsiderate, they don’t like us.

Maybe that’s true, but I doubt it. People are pretty great, but they’re also busy and

often unaware of how their actions are affecting others.

We can choose to take things personally or we can refuse to be offended by

changing the narrative. In other words, we are going to create a new, positive story

to replace the negative one swirling through our minds.

Let’s take the person who let the door slam in our face. Perhaps we are entering a

store and instead of taking half a second to hold the door, the woman just lets it go.

Is she rude? Maybe. That is one story we can tell ourselves. Or we can create a new

narrative. We can think, “I bet she just found out her company is downsizing and

she’s going to be let go.” How does that change the way we view her actions?

How about the person who cuts us off in traffic? Instead of letting thoughts of

inconsiderate drivers fuel our road rage, we can change the narrative. We can imagine

he is in a speedy fast hurry because he just found out his wife is at the hospital about

to give birth. All of a sudden, instead of flipping him off, we are cheering him on!

You go! Get your wife!

Perhaps the person in the office meeting isn’t actually frowning at you. Maybe

they are off in lala land thinking about how to discipline their teenager for missing

curfew. Or maybe their face just looks like that. We can’t all be blessed with a positive


Instead of being offended by what we think their facial expression is saying, we

can choose to ignore it or rewrite what we’re telling ourselves about it. Maybe that

person is processing some tricky information and therefore furrowing their brow.

Maybe they just need us to smile a little to pull them out of their funk.

Sometimes we can ask people about their actions. When that’s the case, go for it.

Be brave and ask for clarity. Other times, we’ll have to let our imaginations do the

work and rewrite what we assume is a negative interaction by changing the narrative

in our minds.

The point is when we want to be set free of the negativity we are perceiving from

other people, we have to begin to assume the best about them. We can further the

positivity and extend grace for their cold or unkind words and actions by asking

questions or creating new stories about them in our minds. The great news is, when

we begin to give grace, we realize how often we’re also receiving it.

COACH NEAL’S NOTES (In the book, we take turns writing chapters. The other one gives some professional reflection.)

Social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein is a Canadian author, known for her

political analyses. She said, “Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn’t filled with hope, someone

will fill it with fear.” It turns out in life as well as politics, when confronted with a

vacuum, people will fill it with fear. Our phone rings in the middle of the night, we fear

something terrible has happened.

Our boss calls us into her office unexpectedly, we enter fearfully. We never assume it is

for a good reason.

This is because, millions of years ago, any vacuum of knowledge would probably kill

you. There was almost nothing positive or hopeful about the darkness and unknown. The

ones who survived were the ones who feared what they didn’t know.

Fast forward to today and we end up with vacuums filled with fear. It’s in our genes.

So when someone looks at us funny in a work meeting, our inner Neanderthal doesn’t just

create a story, it creates a fearful narrative.

The thing is, we are constantly faced with information vacuums. When any event

occurs, we often don’t know what exactly happened and we almost never know why. We

are left to fill the vacuum ourselves and we almost always fill it with some form of fear.

Each example Nicole gives above bears this out. So, her advice to change the narrative

is a powerful game-changer. The point is not to always have to find out what exactly

happened and why. The idea is to take the details we have and come up with a positive

story. Go against millions of years of evolution and think a hopeful thought instead of a

fearful one.

Now it’s your turn.

In the comments, tell me your #1 takeaway and how you plan to use it in your workplace?

Want more? Click here for a free excerpt from Workplace Positivity with three micro-actions.

For more about Workplace Positivity, go to

For more about the work I am doing, go to

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