The Influential Vortex: Do You Fall or Fly?
The Influential Vortex: Do You Fall or Fly?
Human beings are funny creatures. We each have a unique personality with certain characteristics and behaviors that guide our existence. Yet, even a tiny outside force can break us of our routine, causing us to act different than we normally do (whether we notice it or not). This can be a positive or negative thing, so it’s up to us to ensure we avoid the bad and take advantage of the good.

This is the influential vortex. Simply put, it’s the effect nearby people have on our own attitudes and actions. In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell states that human behavior is sensitive to and strongly influenced by its environment. It can lead you into a sea of negativity or steer you towards positive success. If people or groups are acting in a certain way, chances are you will too.

The influential vortex exists everywhere: at home, in sports, among friends, on the freeway, in the stock markets, and perhaps most importantly, at work. Most of us spend 40+ hours a week working in a career that includes others from all walks of life. These people will pull you into the vortex at one point or another, for better or for worse. Luckily for us, we have the power to control incoming and outgoing influence by thinking intelligently.

How does influence work?

I believe that we are most influenced by two things: our friends and our leaders (bosses, law enforcement, parents, religion, etc.). Our desire to fit in means we tend to behave in a way that seeks validation from our friends. Our desire to avoid any trouble means we follow the rules and do what the boss says.

A more scientific definition, however, comes from Robert Cialdini's Influence: The Science and Practice. He cites a number of factors that create influence:

  • Reciprocation – people generally feel obliged to return favors offered to them
  • Consistency – people generally desire to appear consistent in their behavior
  • Social Proof – people generally look to other people similar to themselves when making decisions
  • Liking – people are more likely to agree with people they like
  • Authority – people often act in an automated fashion to commands from authority, even if they don’t agree
Any combination of them can drive our behavior. Think about how these factors influence you as we explore both directions of the vortex!

The negative direction

We all know that one Debbie Downer. Whether from a distant career or your current job, this person still makes you cringe. They exude an obvious negative attitude noticed by almost everyone. This downer complains about the work they are given, talks bad about others, and views things from a “glass half-empty” perspective. This person and their actions create a negative vortex!

In a job many years ago, I had a colleague who often proclaimed “this is so unfair!” every time they were given more work, even though everyone else had quite a workload as well. I don’t think this person realized that management viewed them as more experienced and capable for the tasks at hand. Sadly, that negativity started to affect other people, who then began complaining about things more and more. The vortex pulled everyone down.

Unfortunately, the vortex pulls more strongly in this direction. Negativity is very influential and can spread quickly if not addressed. Gossip in particular is very easy to perpetuate. Toxic company cultures, bosses, and coworkers can change an otherwise positive person into an unproductive and less-than-enthused worker.

If the negative end of the influential vortex is currently tugging at you, avoid it at all costs! Do not let someone you like drag you down by complaining about a project. Do not engage in negative behavior just because everyone else is doing it. You should reverse the trend and create a positive vortex instead.

The positive direction

Just as a negative vortex can pull everyone down, a positive vortex can bring everyone up. It may be easier to fall than fly, but positivity is much more desirable in all aspects of life. You have the power to start a positive vortex if one doesn’t already exist. If you are upbeat, smiling, or succeeding, chances are everyone else will want that too.

Set an example by working hard, helping others, laughing, and saying “hi” or “good morning” to those around you. Another easy way to create a good mood is to do a favor for someone. Favors are a simple way to spread happiness and fire up a vortex of positive influence.

I know this works because I have seen it first-hand. Our team once brought in breakfast for the entire office, which included bagels, donuts, juice, and taco dip (yes, an office favorite no matter what time of day it is!).

For most of the day and certainly the morning, the general mood of the office was very upbeat and thankful. The amount of smiles and comradery we experienced put us in a good mood too. We were not the first ones to extend such a gesture, and we won’t be the last. But the creation of that positive vortex showed its might and the upward trend was obvious.

Always look for the opportunity to jump into or start a positive vortex. Even if you just keep working hard and producing great results, it will influence everyone around you. It may require a little more effort, but the results are worth it.
…a positive vortex can bring everyone up. It may be easier to fall than fly, but positivity is much more desirable in all aspects of life.
Using the vortex for workplace success

Now that you’ve seen how the influential vortex works and how it applies to the workplace, how can you use it for success?

In most instances, the vortex is driven by the top. Management (or leaders as I categorized them earlier) put the expectations in place for the company culture and their actions set an example for others. How leaders treat people is observed by everyone in the company. It doesn’t take a genius to see how this negativity or positivity could affect employees.

As influence trickles down, everyone else plays a role as well. Going back to Gladwell, he explains that there are three types of people who most heavily influence others:

  • Connectors – outgoing people who know many people from various backgrounds. These people make introductions and start conversations. They bring people together.
  • Mavens – information specialists who disseminate knowledge and help others. They aim to solve problems and educate the masses.
  • Salesmen – persuaders with powerful negotiation skills. They value people skills and seek to unite two or more parties (including themselves) in agreement.
Only 20% of the people in your workplace (or any group) fall into these “heavy influencer” categories, according to Gladwell. Are you one of them? If so, you play a big role in determining the direction of the vortex.

If you are not part of this 20%, don’t feel left out! You still play a role in keeping the influential vortex alive simply by being an employee of your workplace. By participating in team discussions, meetings, and every day projects, your skills, opinion, and attitude influence everyone around you.

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki theorizes that groups of people naturally form networks of trust without any need for forced participation or compliance. People in similar situations (like your work team) form effective groups by nature of association and common goals. The skills and knowledge of each group member influence the direction and decisions that the group makes.

Further, Surowiecki states that groups are naturally more intelligent if they are diverse, independent, and decentralized. If everyone is participating, the group tends to move in a positive direction. Even disagreement is essential to the process, which means an open, honest, and respectful culture is required. Employers and managers would be wise to keep all this in mind.

The influential vortex is a complex, yet simple force in our lives. Remember to always avoid falling in line with negative trends and instead reinforce or create a soaring example of positivity.