Demanding customers . . . tough competitors . . . uncooperative weather . . . What an array of challenges in a typical work week! No wonder we get the blues once in a while. That's OK. The risk, though, is that we fall into the habit of negative thinking. When we allow unfavorable conditions to affect our overall mood, our performance drops off and our profits go south.

So how can we keep workplace challenges from getting us down. Grease your business gears with a healthy mental attitude.

"Make a decision now that you want to have a positive mental attitude at work," says Sid Smith, president of Achieve Coaching, Portland, Ore.

"Until you do this consciously, things will not improve. And when you do take this step, it will have a beneficial effect on your life and relationships."

Easier said than done. Here are some solid tips for revving up your happiness engine:

TALK YOURSELF UP

To get into a positive state of mind, talk yourself into it.

"Self-talk builds your self image," says Thomas W. Morris, a motivational coach and president of Washington-based Morris Associates. "A better self image, in turn, affects your personal behavior and your work performance. And better performance stimulates more positive self-talk. It all goes around in a big circle."

Your self-talk statements should be realistic as well as positive. Here's one example: "I am doing my best. I am a valued member of the team and what I do is contributing to the team."

Bonus tip: Jump-start your sunshine engine with self-help books, affirmation tapes or small calendars with daily sayings. Keep them handy and refer to them throughout your day.

VISUALIZE SUCCESS

Want to achieve a certain goal in business — take time to visualize yourself reaching that goal. Morris offers an example of the concept in action: Prior to his participation in the 1912 Olympics, in Stockholm, Sweden track star Jim Thorpe knew he faced a great challenge in the broad jump competition. During the trip to Europe by ocean liner, Thorpe spent a lot of time concentrating on the distance between his deck chair and a chalk line he had drawn on the floor. That distance represented how far he needed to jump. The result was a stunning victory at the Olympics.

"Thorpe was able to achieve success because he got his mind set on how far he needed to jump," says Morris. The process is very similar to that of a Zen master who has a student archer practice with a bow but no arrows for a full year, he adds. During that time the student keeps drawing back the bow and practices hitting a distant target. At the end of a year the student uses real arrows and hits bulls' eyes.

You, too, can achieve success through visualization. "Coaches and trainers have known for years what makes the difference between gold and bronze medal winners," says Morris. "At the level we are talking about it's not speed or fitness or training. It's mental attitude."

BLOCK NEGATIVE THOUGHTS

Self-talk and positive images, then, are the strong walls of your fortress of success. But, darn it, negative thoughts keep breaching your carefully constructed barrier! What to do?

Stay vigilant, says Kim Goad, a Westminster, Md.-based performance- improvement consultant specializing in workplace issues. "When you start to hear negative thoughts creep in, stop them in their tracks," she says. "Ask yourself if the problem is worth spending negative energy on. Then reassess the situation to see what you can do instantly to boost your mood."

Making objective evaluations can often turn around your mood. It's easy to fall into the trap of entertaining negative thoughts. Examples of such thoughts are: "We can't beat the competition" or "our quality is not up to standard" or "We will never get out of debt." On a more personal level it can be "I am not a good manager" or "People don't like me." While on the surface these sound like objective evaluations, they are really emotional reactions. What actually happens is that our emotions are triggered by some event. Maybe a customer calls to complain and that triggers an emotional feeling that expresses itself in a negative statement such as "I am no good."

When this happens to you, stop in your tracks and start asking objective questions that address your concern. Here are some examples:

  • What do I do to help my customers during the day?
  • How is our product quality adjusted to serve the needs of a certain market segment?
  • How are we positioned to serve a market slightly different from our competition?
  • What steps are we taking to resolve debt issues?

These questions highlight a critical point: We can't control our negative emotions. But we can control how we respond to them. "Negative emotions are sure to come whether you want them or not," says Morris. "They arise naturally from events in our daily lives. The problem is that they start to instigate irrational thoughts. You need to capture those irrational thoughts and turn them around with rational questions. Get yourself back into rational mode."

STOP WORRYING

Rational thinking can also help you escape the worry trap. "Worry is a negative attitude that has gone amuck," says Goad. "It is a condition in which you can't stop thinking about a problem."

Fear of the unknown is a big factor in worry. Goad suggests taking control by eliminating the variables of what might happen. Make the subject of your fear concrete by imagining the worst-case scenario. "When you become aware of what that is, ask if the concern is a realistic one," she says. "Is it something you can do anything about, or are you wasting time and energy on a situation not under your control?"

Often we have more than one worry and all of them seem to operate as a kind of background noise, interrupting our clear thinking and casting a dark cloud over our day. In this case, a practice called compartmentalization can help.

"Think of your mind as a big chest with lots of drawers," says Morris. "Assign each worry or project to a certain drawer. Then schedule times to work with each drawer. When it comes time to work on a certain problem open the drawer, work on what you need, then put the problem back in and close the drawer."

POSITIVE ATTITUDE = SUCCESS

"Positive mental attitude has become central to success," says Morris. "It all boils down to one question: Are you looking at your problems positively? You have to answer that before you can do anything."

The reward for answering that question is a healthier workplace, higher profits and a happier life.

Individuals: Take Charge Of Your Day

Are you working in a negative environment? Most of us at some time have either found ourselves in a toxic workplace or at least have been confronted with occasional negative factors that seem beyond our control. What to do.

"As a single person you can't change your organization, but you can begin to change your own thoughts and ideas," says Sid Smith, president of Achieve Coaching, Portland, Ore.

Here are some examples:

  • Is everyone else down in the dumps in the morning? Give a cheerful hello each day when you arrive and express genuine concern about how each person is doing.
  • Are people in the habit of saying bad things about the company? Respond in a sympathetic way, then state that we all need to concentrate on the positive aspects of the workplace and take steps to improve things.
  • Are you sometimes given assignments you don't want to do? Cultivate a positive mental attitude by consciously choosing to do what you have been assigned.
  • Finally, develop a spirit of gratitude for what is right about your work and your life. "This is not to say you ignore things that are wrong, but your first thoughts should not be about them," says Smith. "Start by asking yourself 'What is working about all this.' and then build from there."

All of these tips have a common theme: Being proactive about your attitude makes you stronger, happier and more effective. "Choose to make changes to your own environment," says Smith. "When confronted with a negative workplace tell yourself 'I am not going to go along with this way of doing things.'"

—P.P.

As a manager you have an enormous impact on your workplace. How can you promote positive mental attitudes for the best employee performance.

Start by developing a genuine interest in people. "Positive attitude is not about just saying 'We can do this,'" says Sid Smith, president of Achieve Coaching, Portland, Ore. "It's about really caring and having a genuine concern for the people who work at your business. Really, it's about leaders leaving their egos at home."

Got a subordinate with a negative attitude? Address the issue, says Smith. "Ask your employee, 'I really want to support you but it's very difficult with the attitudes you have. What can I do to help you feel better about your job?'"

"We never ask the obvious questions," says Smith. "If someone is not happy ask them something like this: 'What can I do to change things to make this a place where YOU want to be?'"

Smith suggests cultivating an environment of appreciation and complimenting. Set up a big poster board for performance announcements. "If you see somebody doing something really positive then write it up on a 3-by-5 card and tack it onto the board so everyone can see," he says. "Others will start looking for what other people are doing that is really good."

All of this will shift the focus of your workplace from "I have to make sure I make no mistakes" to "I want to find other people's strong points and emulate them."

—P.P.