Credit and Blame at Work

Exploring the psychological forces at play while you work.

The unavoidable conspiracy in every workplace

There's a conspiracy in your office

Everyone has their own favorite indicators of the sorry state of our economy and the stress that it is causing. Some people point to empty restaurants in New York City, plunging condo prices in Miami, or lengthening unemployment lines. Others point to the growth in prescriptions for anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications.

In my travels as a workplace consultant, I've noticed another indicator: breathing. Andrew Weil has a popular relaxation CD called "Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing" in which he describes relaxed and relaxing breathing as quiet, regular, slow, and deep. Unfortunately, in many offices I've visited recently, people are breathing noisily, irregularly, quickly, and shallowly.

The interesting thing about breathing in the workplace, or anywhere else, is how contagious it can be, for better or for worse. The word "conspiracy" literally means "to breath together" and probably has deep evolutionary roots- primates and early humans lived in environments, enclosed spaces, or altitudes where sufficient oxygen wasn't always plentiful. There was likely a survival advantage provided by being acutely sensitive to social signals of potential oxygen deprivation. We all have observed how contagious yawns are, even over the phone. The same thing happens any time two or more individuals get together- their breathing comes into partial or complete synchronization.

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Next time you are in a meeting with a boss or coworker, try to observe your breathing and their breathing. Are you adapting to them, or are they adapting to you? If you want to calm yourself and them down, try to make your breathing quiet, regular, slow and deep as Dr. Weil recommends.

I'd be interested in hearing from all of you about what you've observed in terms of breath and breathing in the workplace.

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a workplace consultant, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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