When I see the word, contagion. It takes me back to 2020, with its abundance of masks and hand sanitizer. And its shortage of toilet paper and human contact.
For the past few years, companies have been acutely conscious of the spread of contagions, particularly one infamous virus. Leaders took great pains to change workflows, upgrade systems and institute new policies to accommodate remote and hybrid work environments to minimize its spread. But through it all, one contagion which has the potential to bring its own set of issues, was often overlooked and in many cases, not even considered. Emotional contagion.
Emotional contagion sounds scarier than it is. It is the well-established theory that emotions are contagious and can be spread from person to person via casual contact similar to a common cold virus. Casual contact in this case could include interactions via video conferencing as in-person contact is not strictly necessary to transfer emotion. People are spreading and picking up emotional cues every day often without knowing it.
Emotions are shared by mimicking each other’s disposition, tone, facial expressions and body language, an ability honed in early childhood development. When we mirror another’s expression such as a smile or a frown, it triggers our brains to experience the emotion associated with the expression. It’s that feeling of happiness and release after a good laugh with a friend. And you have no idea what made you laugh in the first place.
Which emotions are most contagious?
A full range of emotions are contagious; anger, happiness, fear, sadness, disgust and surprise. But are we more susceptible to certain emotions? Will we more likely pick up on a positive mood over a negative one?
Studies have shown that people who tend to have a happy disposition will more likely be influenced by another’s positive mood and less affected by their negative mood. While other experts argue, all things equal, we are more likely to mimic negative emotions because our survival instincts hardwire us to notice emotions such as such as fear, stress or anger.
Negative or positive, we know familiarity plays a big role in how susceptible a person is to another’s emotions. People are more likely to “catch” emotions when they feel connected to someone, if they pay close attention to a person or if they can read the other person’s emotion.
Emotional contagion in the workplace
Whether we like it or not, employees are picking up each other’s emotions. And leaders, by virtue of their authority, have a much higher impact on the employees they oversee. Their reports are paying close attention; looking for cues of approval and signs of stress and anger. It leaves leaders with the ability and a hefty responsibility to sway their team negatively or positively. Sway positively and experience improved cooperation, employee satisfaction and performance. But sway negatively and it affects employees’ cognitive thinking, energy level and ability to work together.
We can’t always be happy (or pretend to be). But we can help our teams manage the emotional momentum by first being able to identify and manage our own emotions. And by also being aware of the team’s emotions. The more aware you are, the more chance you can do something about it. Because one act of kindness can be a powerful contagion.