Why managers need to understand contagious emotions

Emotional contagion is a subject that has been studied for the past 25 years or so and it’s providing some fascinating insights into how emotions work. For example, one study conducted at the University of Rochester revealed that when participants were put in the same room as a highly motivated individual, their overall drive and performance increased. And the effect held true in reverse; when participants were put in a room with someone displaying a lack of motivation, their motivation and drive levels dropped too.

In both cases, participants were unaware of the influence the motivated or unmotivated individual was having on them, indicating how people can be prone to having their emotional state affected while not even being aware of it.

What causes these contagious emotions?

What lies behind this phenomenon? It seems that it’s connected to social cohesion; humans are programmed to become tuned into, and aligned with, the feelings of the people they’re with as a way to build relationships. Social psychologist and leading emotional contagion researcher Dr. Elaine Hatfield points to the fact that even from an early age, we’re hardwired to unconsciously start copying one another’s expressions. This mirroring is something we continue to do throughout our life.

In other words, emotions aren’t only something experienced at an individual level. It’s easy to think of emotions as being unique and personal but that’s not the case. They can act as social signs that influence others. They can create a sense of social cohesion – but of course, the influence one person can have on another can be a double-edged sword. You’re probably familiar with the expression ‘toxic personality’. That’s an example of emotional contagion in action: a person whose emotions leave those around them feeling consistently low and drained without really knowing why.

Why is it important for people leaders and managers to understand contagious emotions?

The contagious nature of emotions gives them the potential to shape how others are feeling, and that also carries across to the workplace. It follows then that it’s important for people leaders and managers to recognize that emotions can be contagious, limit the potentially detrimental effects and instead find ways to use them for the benefit of the organization.

Many companies are already actively acknowledging the impact emotions can have through initiatives connected to mental health and wellbeing. So, given that emotions can be contagious, it makes these types of initiatives and approaches even more important. Of course, some people are more prone to being affected than others (something which can be explored further using the 15 Point Emotional Contagion Scale) but to a greater or lesser extent, the emotions of others are able to have an impact on us all.

Employees don’t leave their emotions at the door

It’s perhaps understandable that there is a sense that when working, we all switch into ‘professional’ mode, effectively leaving our emotions at the door. While there can certainly be instances when employees are putting on a front to some extent, perhaps when dealing directly with customers or clients, it’s not realistic to assume that emotions can be turned off.

So, what could this mean in terms of how managers manage their people to ensure optimal work performance? What can they do to influence core emotions?

It starts at the top

A leader who understands the significance of emotional health and wellbeing can have a powerful positive impact on those who work for them. That’s partly to do with the fact that the emotional state of those in positions of power affects subordinates; employees are particularly prone to being significantly influenced by their boss’s emotions.

In fact, as explained in this TED talk, it can set the tone above all else. It suggests that the best indicator of how a boss performs as a leader is how others feel when they’ve spent time with them.

Emotions are causal – so managers need to understand the causes and encourage positivity

As a manager, therefore, it’s important to be sympathetic to the fact that employees have ups and downs and to offer a positive, supportive approach to those who are having a bad day. Understanding how an employee’s emotions can both positively and negatively affect the wider workforce presents an opportunity for managers to be educated about the importance of emotions. That better places them to identify emotions in a non-judgmental way. It enables them to support those who are struggling with negative emotions or use the positive emotions of an employee to support and enhance the team.

How can organizations focus on enabling greater levels of positivity within the workplace?

Given that they are potentially contagious, what types of positive emotions can be actively encouraged? From recognizing achievements to enabling greater autonomy and flexibility, there are several complementary approaches an organization can take to help its employees feel included, trusted, valued and appreciated. Positive feedback, compliments, even simply smiling at others can all offer emotional boosts that contribute to a culture of positivity.

These positive emotions can be encouraged and nurtured through mechanisms that improve the quality and frequency of positive feedback and create spaces where gratitude can be freely given.

Equally important is removing any road stops that drain energy, block the flow of positivity and get in the way instead, like lengthy authorizations and manager signoffs or antiquated nomination processes.

Read more: 10 ways to improve emotional safety in the workplace

With growing levels of evidence like this report from the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine showing that kindness to others benefits the giver too, encouraging simple acts of everyday kindness seems a good place to start. And, of course, kindness results in another positive response, gratitude. Thanks to the power of emotional contagion, these can build social bonds and in turn create an environment that grows increasingly positive by the day.