What Will You Catch This Summer?


Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,
Here I am at Camp Grenada
Camp is very entertaining
and they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.
I went hiking with Joe Spivy
He developed poison ivy
You remember Leonard Skinner
He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.
All the counselors hate the waiters
And the lake has alligators
And the head coach wants no sissies
So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.
– Allen Sherman, “A Letter from Camp”

In Allen Sherman’s classic song, he pens a desperate plea to his parents to take him home from sleepaway camp, where he has lived (for one whole day) in fear of food poisoning, disease, and being eaten alive. These are not the sort of song lyrics that a parent who is about to send her two 10-year-olds off to seven weeks of camp should be reading. I see that now. I do.

That being said, as I send my twins into the wilderness – with kosher catered meals, of course – I can’t help but think about all of the things that they could catch this summer simply by living within close proximity to dozens of other kids: lice, bedbugs, the flu (swine, avian, or human). And those are just the physical threats. Emotionally, if they are bunking with a modern-day Allen Sherman, they could catch anxiety, negativity, or homesickness. Even bathing in Purell won’t prevent that.

You don’t have to go to summer camp to catch things you don’t want. In their report, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else Is Doing it Too,” researchers from Harvard, Brown and the University of California – San Diego found that if an immediate friend or even a close colleague gets a divorce, the chance that you will get a divorce jumps by 75 percent. Other researchers from those same doomsday institutions, Harvard and UC-SD, found that weight problems are contagious, too: one person’s obesity can significantly increase the chance that his or her friends, siblings and spouse also will become heavy. Even Moshe Ben Ezra, known as the writer of penitential prayers, weighs in, “Ignorance is swiftly contagious.”

Divorce. Obesity. Stupidity. While they’re not the worse things in the world, I think I’d rather catch a cold.

Our “social network” is more than just our group of Friends on Facebook, our Twitter followers and our colleagues on LinkedIn. Our social network is a conduit by which we share attitudes and behaviors – for better or for worse. I see this all the time in my work when I am asked to consult with organizations and teams who have “caught” one another’s workplace morale malaise. When quarantine isn’t an option, we need to diagnose the possible causes before we can prescribe the right dose of chicken soup for the soul.

In his article, “Ten Real Causes of Low Morale in Professional Firms, [insert link: http://www.di-squad.com/toolshed/ten-real-causes-of-low-morale.html] consultant Tom Varjan contends that most managers “never hack their way through the jungle of symptoms to find the real causes.” Why? Because determining the source of the virus takes time and money. But when we think of organizational and interpersonal disease as any less taxing or toxic than dealing with a physical disorder, we do ourselves and our companies a disservice.

Varjan highlights some of the following factors as sources of infection:

  • “Misemployed” people. These are employees who are show up to work but aren’t offered challenging or stretch assignments that help them tap into their full potential.
  • Communication problems: People with ideas who don’t speak their minds for fear of being punished – or perhaps worse – repeatedly ignored.
  • Colleagues and managers who are not accessible for help: Staff who feel like they are “in it alone” because their coworkers are focused on their own silo, and their managers consider coaching their direct reports to be a luxury rather than an imperative.
  • Lack of personal and professional growth: When our organizations get slow, training budgets get cut, but we miss the opportunity to help people develop the competencies needed to do more with fewer financial or human resources. When our organizations get busy, there is no time for training, so we miss the chance to teach people to communicate, manage, serve and navigate within limited time.
  • ·Inconsistent feedback: When staff doesn’t know what’s working and what’s not in a consistent, timely and growth-directed manner, they will continue to do what they’ve always done – the good, the bad and the ugly. In fact, in the absence of opportunities to receive and to give feedback, some staff deliberately “infect” their colleagues to make sure that their symptoms get noticed in a big way. Childish, but true.

So, if you’ve been watching any of these attitudes and behaviors blister and proliferate throughout your workplace, it may be time to face it head-on and hold some private, one-on-one conversations (to keep the symptoms from spreading even further). Or it may be time to bring in an “organizational doctor” to help diagnose, prescribe, and monitor the healing process.

But the best solution, as usual, is prevention. Luckily, our friends from Harvard and UC-SD have produced a study that tastes less like Robitussin and more like Haagen Dazs chocolate peanut butter ice cream: Happiness is contagious, too. Within our social networks, “happiness spreads among people up to three degrees removed from one another. That means when you feel happy, a friend of a friend of a friend has a slightly higher likelihood of feeling happy too.” Study co-author Dr. James Fowler tells us that taking control of your own happiness can have a positive impact on others’ happiness as well.

In our homes, our communities and in our workplaces, we need to find the glimmers of happiness and hope that we can embody and share to positively impact our social networks. As Golda Meir once advised, “Create the kind of self that you will be happy to live with all your life. Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” And as we all know, for better or for worse, flames spread. So let’s catch the “for better” kind.

Even curmudgeon Allen Sherman found a kernel of happiness to spread at the end of his classic tune:

Wait a minute, it stopped hailing,
Guys are swimming, guys are sailing,
Playing baseball, gee that’s better,
Muddah, Fadduh, kindly disregard this letter.