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Emotional Contagion in the Workplace

Have you ever experienced someone’s mood rubbing off on you? Say your partner comes home from work in a grumpy mood, and suddenly the whole house feels miserable? Or perhaps a friend is incredibly upbeat and excited about something, and you just can’t help smiling along too?


This is actually a phenomenon called ‘emotional contagion’ where emotions filter from the person who originally feels them to those around them. Humans are very social creatures, and we often mimic the behaviour of others without realising. It’s the same with emotions – we can pass them on and change the mood of a group, room or setting.


It can be a positive or negative experience, and it’s not entirely within our control – it usually starts as a sub-conscious response to an observed behaviour or action, but it can be affected by other factors, such as music, atmosphere, or the relationship to the person you are observing. Indeed, emotional contagion is actually used by advertisers as a tool to trigger certain emotions in people which may encourage them to buy their product.


Negative emotions can be easier to latch onto than positive ones, especially if you’re already feeling a bit down. For example, if you’ve had a bad nights’ sleep, you may already be feeling at a lower ebb than normal. If you then encounter someone at work who is very irritable or appears stressed, you are more vulnerable to being swept along with that negative emotion, as opposed to mimicking someone who is full of joy.


It may seem innocuous – surely someone’s mood rubbing off on you can’t make that much difference? But because you can pass it on to others, it can become much bigger than it was originally. On a large scale, this can turn into mob mentality or mass panic. It’s similar to thinking about the spread of germs – it’s easily contained when it’s one person, but virtually impossible to stop once a critical number of people are infected. The same can be true of emotional contagion if it’s on a big enough scale (think football matches or large protest marches).


Over time, it can cause disorientation of the self, where you’re not sure whether what you’re feeling are your own emotions, or whether you’re feeding off someone else. This means that it can be hard to keep clear about your own perspective in a given moment, and you may stop trusting your instincts and start to lack self-belief.


Emotional contagion can be a particular issue in the workplace. Not only can work environments be places of high stress and frustration (making it more likely that negative contagion may occur between colleagues), but they are also spaces for regular group communication – think meetings, presentations, group calls. Each of these have the potential to be highly contagious events, and tone of voice or language used could make all the difference. It’s not difficult to see how a charismatic and upbeat leader could have a completely different impact on a group to an abrupt, irate or dismissive leader. This TED Talk by Brandon Smith talks about emotional contagion in the workplace – it’s worth a look to get a better understanding of what it means and how to counter it.


Negative workplace contagion can have detrimental consequences on cooperation within teams, task performance, and conflict levels. If left unchecked, this could ultimately lead to low staff morale, absenteeism, reduced productivity and efficiency, and high staff turnover.


It’s not limited to just those individuals who work in one office together, either. It can spread beyond them to customer, suppliers, and friends and family. This is because once it’s spread to one person, that individual can take that emotion beyond the confines of the workplace to their external contacts – meaning that the bad mood of one person in sales can ultimately have a negative effect on your children once you get home.


By monitoring the emotional atmosphere of the workplace, it’s possible to see trends in mood fluctuation, what causes them, and what solutions seem to have the most impact, which means business owners can take positive action to try to limit negative emotional contagion and the damaging consequences it can have. They can also work to actively harness positive emotional contagion instead, which can lead to more effective communication strategies, improved group dynamics and wider commercial relationships, and enhanced organisational performance.


On a personal level, being aware of how you feel about your workplace and your colleagues is key, as it can allow you to make minor (or major) adjustments that improve the situation. You could also decide to be a source of positivity, giving out smiles, encouragement and empathy rather than criticism or a frown – it might be enough to stop negative emotions spreading through a group.

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