In 2004, football player Terrell Owens signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. With Owens’ help, the team won 13 of 16 games, the best record in the NFL, and finally made it to the big game. Though the Eagles lost, they turned in an extraordinary performance. In the off-season after the Super Bowl, Owens demanded he be rewarded for his performance with an enhanced contract even though he knew the Eagles’ policy prohibited such renegotiations. As it turned out, the Eagles Management turned down Owens’ demand and, at the start of the 2005 training camp, the bitter Owens became such a destructive and distracting force in the locker room that management sent him home. Owens’ individual rancor eroded team-cohesiveness, drew team focus away from the goal of getting to another Super Bowl, and began to hamper performance on the field. Mid-season, the Eagles decided to cut their losses and send the toxic Owens packing, unfortunately too late at that point for the team to get back on track.
Emotions can spread like wildfire in the workplace. One negative, difficult person can bring down the whole team while one optimistic, friendly team member can lift the whole team up. Psychologists call this emotional contagion.
Research has shown that emotions strongly influence our memory, our perception of events, our thought processes and, ultimately, our behavior. In the workplace, people’s moods tremendously impact decision-making, problem-solving, attention/focus, interpersonal interactions, performance, productivity, and the whole organizational culture.
Sigal Barsade, a professor at Wharton Business School, studies emotional contagion and observed that “People are walking mood inductors, continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.” In her research she found that positive emotions created more cooperation; negative emotions increased conflict and decreased cooperative decision-making.
Emotional contagion involves both subtle and not-so-subtle psychological and physiological processes. It begins with our human tendency, beginning in infancy, to mimic the nonverbal behaviors, facial expressions, body language, speech patterns and vocal tones of others. Mommy smiles down on you, you smile back. Daddy frowns, you cannot help frowning, too. This automatic mimicry triggers a physiological feedback loop where the muscular and glandular responses from mimicking trigger an emotion. Mommy smiles, you feel happy; Daddy frowns, you feel sad.
Emotional contagion doesn’t just happen face-to-face, it can also happen in the virtual/remote world. A study conducted in 2011 by Arik Chesin and colleagues examined the effect of texting on emotions. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that both happiness and anger can spread easily via text. It is believed that in the absence of conventional non-verbal cues we look for other sorts of cues (the emphases conveyed by boldface, italics, and CAPS, smiley faces, and punctuation marks!) Such cues can ignite emotional contagion just as surely as face-to-face human emotion can.
Keeping emotional contagion on a positive track requires conscientious effort. In your own organization, use these tips to instill and maintain the right mood:
Check yourself: You can’t successfully mask your emotions and moods because it seeps into your tone, facial expression, posture, etc. Therefore, accurate self-awareness of your own mood and your non-verbal behaviors goes a long way toward fostering positive emotional contagion. Sometimes you need to just walk away and repair your mood and sometimes, if it’s too late, you need to acknowledge the bad mood and apologize for the damage it’s caused.
Apply empathy: The best teams follow the basic rule that members can point out a teammate’s bad mood without fear of retribution, provided they do it in a helpful, empathetic way. Just as we may have trouble recognizing our own mood states and the impact they have on others, it is the same for the people with whom we work closely. Ask what you can do to help. Listen to their story. But whatever you do, withhold judgment or criticism. This helps a team member recognize and adjust their own mood and establishes the foundation for a collectively empathetic and caring team.
Use humor: Not every situation lends itself to a good laugh, but nothing diffuses unhappiness more quickly than something funny that instantly lightens the mood. Remember Mommy smiling down on you? A simple expression can alter a mood.
Employ positive e-communication: Every email, IM or text you send can either irritate or please the recipient. Never forget the little courtesies and pleasantries, such as “please” and “thank you” or “Have a great day.” Such statements create a positive, empathetic experience for the reader.