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Emotional Contagion

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Have you ever walked into a room where you can feel the energy straight away, it almost hits you in the face as you enter. Sometimes it’s an upbeat positive vibe that’s almost tangible and at others it’s an uncomfortable negative energy that seems to suck the oxygen out of a room. If you can feel it when you walk into a room, you’d imagine that those in the room are living the same experience, immersed in a powerful emotional melting pot. In a workplace, these emotionally charged environments can impact the ability of those in the room to interact, function and perform their roles.  The transference of emotions can be done unconsciously without any verbal exchange through facial expressions, postures, sounds and other non-verbal cues. In some settings, emotions transfer from one person to another and can intensify causing them to spread rapidly. This spontaneous spreading of emotions is known as emotional contagion and has the ability to significantly impact the success of an organisation. 

Those you lead are not emotional islands; they’ll look to you to see which way the wind is blowing and if you get it right they will be swept along with your positivity. 

We are generally not aware of emotional contagion until we are in the midst of a surge of emotions. If you’ve ever been to a concert there is generally a feeling of excitement prior to the performance and then a surge of emotion sweeps the crowd as the performers take to the stage. This collective surge of emotion can be extremely powerful and can energise even the most reserved member of an audience.   There has been a great deal of research conducted on emotional contagion to understand this powerful driver and its impact on individuals and groups.  There is no denying that emotions influence behaviours and alter thought patterns. Understanding the significance this has on group dynamics and individual performance is a vital component of a leader’s armoury. 

During human interactions, we know that people have a tendency to mirror the emotional state of the person they are interacting with, so understanding how positive or negative emotions influence positive or negative behavior can assist you when leading a team. By paying attention to emotions in the workplace and consciously working to shape them, you can potentially amplify belonging, connectedness and positivity leading to increased levels of performance. Alternatively, by ignoring them and glossing over emotions that run through an organisation you can run the risk of allowing feelings to grow that could be counterproductive to what you are aiming to achieve. Leaders who understand the impact and influence of emotional wellbeing know that monitoring the emotional health of an organisation goes a long way to building a successful culture. 

Understanding how emotional contagion works and being aware of it assists you with identifying areas in your team where it may be more prevalent than others. People can’t always put into words how they are feeling and some are reluctant to share how they feel, so looking for emotional subtitles is important. In our work environments, dominant emotions can alter group behaviour.  Once a person succumbs to the dominant emotion it can stay with them for the whole day and even transfer from setting to setting influencing each environment they enter. If it’s a positive emotion then that’s ok, if on the other hand it is one of negativity and pessimism then we need to intervene quickly. Negative emotions are extremely powerful and tend to spread more rapidly so looking for any shift in the positive to negative ratio of conversations, ideas and solutions can give great insight into the emotional wellbeing of your team members. If we recognise any shift, we must make a conscious attempt not to buy into the emotion avoiding any triggers that may lead us down a similar path. Just like any contagion, emotional contagion needs a host to spread. As the leader, you don’t want to be the one spreading negativity.

Effective leaders consciously model the emotions they want to cultivate in their organisation. They have an ability to show up in each interaction or new environment in the right emotional state regardless of what is going on below the surface or behind the scenes, it’s almost like they have an emotional mask. These emotional masks allow leaders to project to those they interact with the preferred emotional response required at the appropriate time. It’s not that they are being false or misrepresenting themselves, it is more that they are aware of the impact their emotions can have on others.  There is evidence to suggest that people tend to adopt and copy the tiny communicative behaviours of those they engage with and in doing so are willingly led down the path of acquiring the same emotional state. So leaders who are able to manage their emotions and use them successfully during interactions are better equipped to leave an environment with the right emotional setting before they exit. Understanding emotional contagion allows you to manage any spread by recognising the signs and adjusting environmental settings accordingly.

In a workplace, emotional contagion can have a significant impact as the emotions of one or two individuals can flow over and have a ripple effect across the entire team. When emotional contagion takes hold of a group it can be a difficult space for a leader to navigate. If you notice your team in the grips of emotional contagion  trying to immediately dampen the mood can actually be counterproductive as there may be a feeling you are trying to ‘shut it down’. It’s important to allow people to present their grievances in an appropriate way. I’m not suggesting that we openly encourage public displays of dissatisfaction, but remaining calm and giving time for the emotion to drain from the room allows you to try to shift thinking towards more constructive conversations focused on solutions. As the leader you need to control the temperature in the room, people will look to you to see how you adjust the gauge to either raise the heat or cool it down, they will take their cues from you. If you are combative then you’ll get this mirrored back at you, if you are open, considered and calm, then there is more of a chance this may be reciprocated. I’m not naïve enough to think that remaining calm will reduce the temperature in a room, but the alternative will certainly not. Demonstrating that there is always a way forward sets an expectation and tone that there is an achievable resolution.

We know that when we are around positive people we are more positive. If someone smiles at you try not to smile, it’s hard, in a crowd where there is laughter try not to laugh, this too is difficult. We know that negative emotions are the most powerful in terms of their ability to spread. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we keep our emotions in check and identify how we are feeling before, during and after each interaction. Having the ability to identify and regulate how you are feeling is going to be an extremely powerful tool. As a leader, you potentially have the greatest influence over the culture you are trying to create. Emotional contagion can have positive effects on those we lead, if we set the tone. As you go about your work, think carefully about how you would like to leave each environment once you have left it. I personally can think of only one way. When you next walk into a room make a conscious effort to smile and bring positive energy and watch the room join you. Those you lead are not emotional islands; they’ll look to you to see which way the wind is blowing and if you get it right they will be swept along with your positivity. 


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