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Is Emotional Contagion Hijacking your Team?

Imagine you are Snow White and your team at work consists of the supporting cast: the seven dwarfs and the wicked queen. Who do you think would endanger the productivity of the team the most? Most people would guess the wicked queen. But, the truth is that the worst character for the team may be Grumpy.

Comprehensive research has uncovered a phenomenon collectively termed “emotional contagion.” Simply put, we pick up a degree of the emotions the people around us are experiencing. In other words, moods are contagious.  And, the way those moods influence our interactions with others, our behaviors, and even the neurochemistry in the brain are all contagious, too.

The science of emotional contagion goes back to 400 B.C., when Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, observed that some women seemed to transfer "hysteria" to one another. By the 1700s, researchers discovered that we subconsciously imitate the facial expressions of others. In the late 1800s, German psychologist Theodor Lipps expanded upon the concept by suggesting that this unconscious imitation was the root of empathy.

But it's only within the past several decades that scientists have begun to understand the dynamics behind such exchanges, finding that "emotional contagion" affects all human relationships, from marriage to business to professional sports. In their book Emotional Contagion, researchers Elaine Hatfield, John Cacioppo, and Richard Rapson, defined emotional contagion, a subset of empathy, as:  “The tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally.” 

Advances in neuroscience have enabled scientists to actually observe how neurons fire when an action is performed, and, more importantly, how those neurons fire when that same action is observed being performed by another.

In a 2002 study, Sigal G. Barsade at Yale University found that emotions don't just hop from one person to another; they also influence group dynamics. , Barsade separated business students into small groups, each with the same hypothetical task of allocating employee bonuses. Barsade secretly planted one student in each group to act out a different emotion: enthusiasm, hostility, serenity, or depression. When the infiltrator was enthusiastic, he smiled often, looked intently into people's eyes, and spoke rapidly. When he feigned depression, he spoke slowly, avoided eye contact, and slouched in his seat.

Barsade measured participants' moods before and after the exercise and found that students who caught the actor's positive emotions were perceived by others and by themselves as more competent and cooperative. The positive groups also believed they were more collegial than those in the bad-mood groups. But when Barsade asked the students what influenced their performance, they attributed it to their skills. "People don't realize they are being influenced by others' emotions," she says.

In 2014, Facebook was used to study emotional contagion. After manipulating the emotional content of 700,000 users’ news feeds, the researchers found that after being exposed to negative content users shared less positive and more negative posts. The experiment demonstrated that personal interaction and non-verbal clues weren’t necessary for emotional contagion. The study proved highly controversial – several other teams published papers questioning its ethics. But the findings are significant.

This has real implications in the workplace, and we can use it to our advantage or we can let it negatively impact productivity, engagement, and overall company culture. The emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive abilities. In a 2010 study out of the University of Warwick, researchers confirmed that happiness can increase productivity.  The authors found that human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. “Positive emotions invigorate human beings, while negative emotions have the opposite effect…. Happier workers, our research found, were 12 percent more productive. Unhappier workers were 10 percent less productive.”

The good news is that we are not helpless. Understanding how emotional contagion works increases your awareness of the negative version of it — and is a form of prevention. Exercising, volunteering, mindfulness, and positive connections with others can counteract the negative emotions of those around you and positively increase your mood. Also, feelings of hope, optimism and gratitude have been shown to be powerful ways to turn a negative mood into a positive one.

A wealth of research has explored the impact of one simple behavior – requiring no training and no funding – that would increase happiness and productivity at work in mere seconds.  That behavior?  Smile.  The simple act of smiling releases all kinds of good chemicals – dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin – which translates into greater productivity and increased cognitive function. Those chemicals facilitate activity in the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking part of the brain.

So, you can choose to be Grumpy or your can choose to be Happy. Just remember, the choice you make will impact the brain chemistry of those around you. Intentionally presenting positive emotions significantly influence the atmosphere and the collective mindset of the people in the room. How do you want to show up? What emotions do you want to spread today?


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