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How to influence the atmosphere to bring out the best in people

By Dr. Rean du Plessis – Authentic Leadership

Have you ever walked into a room full of people and sensed something about the atmosphere? You might enter a boardroom and, without knowing any context, perceive either excitement or tension. Or what about collaboration and creativity compared to strife and contradiction?

I often sense a particular spirit when I interact with an individual — courage, fear, curiosity, determination, openness. When people come together, they tend to adopt certain group behaviours based on the people with the strongest influence in the room.

Much of my work involves facilitating such group interactions. Sadly, I often see how unhealthy group dynamics can dampen the general atmosphere and thus productivity.

How intentional are you to perceive the atmosphere? Are you open to it and focusing on it? How successful do you feel at influencing the atmosphere, especially when you are not the one with the most official authority in the room?

In this blog, I share some leadership lessons about how to influence the atmosphere to bring out the best in individuals and groups.

1. Shifting the atmosphere

I recently had the opportunity to facilitate a multi-day group session with regional leaders of a multinational company. The people in the room were from regions as diverse as Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

For the first few days, we really struggled to make progress. On the surface, everyone was talking about the same thing and agreeing in principle. But in reality, everyone was pulling in different directions.

When you’re deeply grounded in your own spiritual source, you can influence the spiritual atmosphere in a room — whether you’re the one with the most organizational authority and power or, like me in this context, if you’re not.

In the middle of a conversation that clearly was going nowhere, I silently turned inward and prayed for guidance. I changed direction and got the team to engage with each other and acknowledge each other. That shift made a huge difference in the atmosphere and the impact of the intervention.

At the end of our work together, the atmosphere was completely different — the group had a sense of accomplishment.

Pausing to ask for guidance and responding to the answer I received allowed me to shift the atmosphere from competition and contradiction to collaboration and cooperation.

I must add that similar experiences throughout my career have taught me that there isn’t a formula for how to shift the atmosphere. To be effective, I’ve found that it must be motivated by a higher purpose, such as the desire to serve or love for my fellow human beings.

2. Resisting a negative spirit

Only a month after the previous scenario, I was again participating in a group session with several international leaders.

The spiritual atmosphere here was much more negative than before. An underlying tone of control, distrust, lies, disrespect, and manipulation dominated the room.

I soon discovered that most of this spiritual energy came from one person who influenced another person and vice versa. I must admit that I only realized what was going on when it was too late – I wasn’t 100% present. As much as I tried to influence the spiritual atmosphere, they already had such a strong influence on the other people that none of my attempts made much of a difference.

On some level, they were aware that I was trying to change the spiritual atmosphere. And they were not happy about it. It even prompted one of them to describe some very shocking things about what has been done and what they will do to maintain power.

I’ve not often encountered someone with such a dark presence.

This person offered me a perfect opportunity to practice separating the person from the behaviour. As much as I would call some of the behaviour I experienced evil, I asked myself how I could love the person.

I could not tell if my actions made much difference. In fact, most often, the spiritual result of our actions, both good and bad, often takes much longer than we expect to come into fruition. So it’s difficult to measure its true impact.

However, what I do know is that my ability to discern the spiritual atmosphere and identify its source allowed me to resist going along with behaviour that goes against my values.

3. Contributing to a positive atmosphere

The last example comes from a client with whom I’ve had a long engagement. It involved traveling to their site on a regular basis and getting to know the team well.

After this engagement ended, the client approached me to ask that I return to do more work with them. They specifically mentioned that they value the positivity and the acknowledgement of the people I bring to their team.

Acknowledging people unconditionally is not difficult, but it’s rare — which makes it so special when someone does it. It contributes to a positive and productive atmosphere.

The words I’d use to describe a positive atmosphere are found in the book of Galatians in the Bible. In Chapter 5, it speaks about the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control.  These traits are not always common practice in the business world, where we tend to focus on business results rather than the person.

However, the behaviour that comes from the spiritual state described in this passage promotes healthy relationships, collaboration, using our talents optimally and good teamwork. They create the environment where people can produce the business results we’re after.

It’s then not surprising that the famous Harvard Study of Adult Development found that people with warm relationships earned on average $141,00 a year more at the peak of their careers, as reported in Triumphs of Experience, a book on the study.

Cultivating a positive spirit and sharing that spirit through your work enhances your and others’ lives—also financially. If we realize this truth as leaders, we know it is our responsibility to cultivate this kind of positive atmosphere wherever we go.

Leadership takeaways

Here are some practical actions you can take towards implementing these leadership lessons.

  • Cultivate a positive spirit with edifying spiritual practices for your own and others’ benefit.
  • Identify negative spiritual forces and take decisive spiritual actions.
  • Prepare well, be 100% present, ask for inner guidance and respond to prompts to shift a negative or unproductive atmosphere.

Influencing the atmosphere is not as mystical as it sounds. If you cultivate a healthy state of being and live it out consistently, you will find yourself living in a more positive state and enable others to benefit from it too.

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