Have you finished your day and come away thinking the team gelled today, everyone was on performing well and in good spirits? or perhaps the opposite, where you leave exhausted because everyone felt flat and uninspired?

There could be many reasons for both these scenarios, but one of them could be you are suffering the effects of emotional contagion. An interesting notion that describes how emotions can spread just as quickly as the common cold.

Consider the following examples:

You meet a friend for coffee, and they share some exciting news with a big smile. Your instinct is too smile back at that person and share in their joy.

At the company meeting, the CEO explains poor performance has increased his anxieties for the future of the business.

Emotional contagion effects not only individuals but groups as well and being aware of it allows you to put in place measures to help become resilient to it.  You might not realise it, but your emotions and mood can have a butterfly effect that can impact more than your feelings.  Emotions are spread from person to person as quickly as viruses and can affect productivity as an individual, a team or an organisation.

A Story Of Laughs

In the entertainment industry, emotional contagion has been used since the 1950s to enhance the humour in comedy shows.  Before Television, we would experience comedy in the presence of others in a live audience.  With what we know about the contagious nature of emotion, it would be hard not to leave feeling elated.

Audience Laughing
Audience Laughing 

As Television became mainstream, we started to experience comedy with fewer people, and production wanted to recreate the atmosphere.  Initially, they did so by filming in front of a live audience.  It wasn't long before they realised that a live audience laughed too long, or at the wrong time or not at all.

Charles Douglass, a sound engineer, noticed the problem and came up with The Laff Box.  Essentially, a laughter track that is used to blend recorded laughter over the 'live' show for broadcast -- Canned Laughter is born.

As annoying as I find canned laughter, the significance of recreating the experience is still used today to ensure audiences watching on Television can experience shared humour.  It can help us laugh at the jokes we might not pick up on, and have that shared experience of happiness.

Catching an emotion is a 3-step process

So how does it work?

Psychologists have identified that catching emotions is a three-step process which is shown using this simple cartoon strip I created below.

Emotional Contagion - Three Step Process
Emotional Contagion - Three Step Process

Mimicry - The first step in catching the emotion is we first need to recognise it—body language, subtle cues that you subconsciously start to mimic starts to create a shared empathy.  We can see in the cartoon, that Mark comes to the conversation happy, whilst Susan is feeling unhappy.

Feedback - Once you mimic the emotion, changes begin to happen with you as you start to experience the feeling.  In the cartoon, we begin to see the mood change in Susan after his conversation with Mark.

Contagion - The final step in the process is when the emotion forms part of your experience. Susan is now leaving the conversation feeling pretty happy and optimistic about her day.

At this stage, we, ourselves now can become an influencer for the next person, and the cycle starts over again.

Emotional Contagion In The Office

I am sure we can all relate to that person in the office who cannot let go of the past, drags the mood down for the whole team and always focusses on the negative. Have you noticed the change in the team once that person is absent --  Does the entire squad lighten up? Pay attention the next time, and you mind find that shoulders relax, and the mood is generally better.  Not only that but performance tends to increase during this period.

Negative emotions are highly toxic. As humans, we all suffer from negativity bias as part of our built-in survival instinct.  This bias means that negative emotions overrule positive emotions.  Now we understand that emotions are contagious; we can quickly see how a negative emotion can soon spread through the team or workplace.

Leaders Behaviour Matters

When it comes to leadership, leaders have an essential role in creating the culture and atmosphere for a productive, happy environment.  Colleagues look up to their leaders, and if they witness a negative attitude from leadership, then that will filter down the organisation or spread throughout the team.  Equally, they need to be aware of negativity throughout the organisation or group.

Failure to do so can bring down an organisation or team.  It is vital that not only we monitor technical skills, but also monitor the emotions that are brought into the workplace.

  • We all have bad days be open about them, but manage your emotions to drive a positive atmosphere.
  • Understand that your employee's emotions experienced in work, continue after work.
  • Make eye contact with everyone on the team, or reach out to them as individuals.
  • Monitor the mood of your teams and colleagues regularly.
  • Strive to weed out negativity in the organisation, often those who are negative don't realise the impact on the rest of the group.

Setting safety boundaries

During the pandemic, we are all mainly working from home, which means it can be a little easier to shield ourselves from emotional contagion.  However, there is still a risk is we can all feel it when on zoom calls and overly negative people within in the team.

  • If the family are around, take some time out and speak with family members and other positive people.
  • Take a walk outside for some fresh air.
  • Listen to some music that makes you feel good.

When are working in the office:

  • Create a soft psychological boundary by creating a green zone with plants, have pictures of family or pets around your desk.
  • Use some noise-cancelling headphones to minimise external noises and overhearing conversations.
  • Use bathroom breaks and fresh air.
  • Find positive people in the workplace and surround yourself with them.
  • Reduce the time interacting with negative people and try not to intimate their emotions.

Wrapping Up

Emotional contagion is real, and emotions are contagious. We are all inherently susceptible to it, but we can minimise our exposure to it.  We know that mood affects our individual and team performances. On top of that, our negativity bias means that negative emotions often overrule positive emotions.

There is always going to be that one person in the office who will drag others down. Still, as individuals, we can minimise our exposure to contagious emotions through a series of simple psychological improvements and reducing our exposure to negative people.

For leaders - it isn't easy.  We are fighting against a subconscious behaviour, but there are some things we can do to ensure that we don't inflate the problem.  Colleagues look up to leaders, so ensure you have the right attitude when coming to work, pay attention to the tone in written communication (email, instant messaging) and be observant to the mood of your team.

I hope this was as interesting to you as it was to me and the realisation that emotions can be as contagious as catching a cold.