I know its flu season, but in this case I am not talking about a cold. I am talking about another virus that can do almost as much loss in productivity to a workplace as a cold; I am talking about emotion contagion.
Just like superman, emotion contagion can infect a workplace faster than a speeding bullet. Do you often feel like moods can go viral in your office. Particularly if there is some strong emotion attached to that. Emotions both positive and negative can spread amongst an organisation like a bad cold. People “catch”each others feelings when working in groups (and this can even be through a social media environment). Its not surprising that this infection then affects your mood and everyone around you, what is more surprising is it significantly influences peoples judgment and their ability to make effective decisions and generally people have no idea it is happening.
Before we look at how we can recognize emotion contagion and what we can do about it, first we need to look at why?
Emotion contagion has been a phenomenon recognised in the research as a type of interpersonal influence (schater 1959). It was first studied on interactions between two individuals but further studies have identified that emotion contagion also has a ripple effect. It has an affect on group dynamics.
The concept of emotion contagion was linked to how human synchronise their emotions and this is driven from our emotional centre or our limbic brain, responsible for our flight, fight or fright response. It is also a very old part of our brain and was designed to keep us safe. Being synchronised (working together in tribes and clans) simply kept us alive. The world has changed, but that part of our brain hasn’t. Because this part of our brain is trying to keep us safe, it is more hard wired for Threat than for Reward or from an emotion contagion perspective, our brains notice negative emotions faster, quicker and easier than positive emotions.
As a leader in todays competitive and constantly changing business environment where people are often in threat and under pressure and stressed, you can see the value of being aware of emotion contagion amongst your people and how you can use your knowledge and understanding of this to create more positive team dynamics, increase and performance and decrease turnover by consciously managing their emotions and helping the collective brain manage theirs.
It is important to remember that as a leader your mood matters even more than than that of your people. Everyone looks to the leader and if you are in a bad mood, panic sets in. Your people wonder what that means for them. Once you become a leader you no longer have the luxury of a bad mood. Managing your moods is a critical quality when we understand emotion contagion.
So how can you identify emotion contagion in your workplace or if you are creating it and what are some strategies you can do to manage your own emotions.
Here are my top tips:
Eliminate energy drainers – Are there people or situations that drain your energy. The brain is an energy conserving machine and situations or people that tire your brain can cause mental fatigue and infect your mood. What can you do to address these and other drainers? What can you do to eliminate them and make room for people and situations that energise you and keeps you focused on what matters?
Get Distance and Perspective – Often, creating internal distance can be most effective. Instead of identifying with someone, take an intellectual perspective. Step back and think about the reasons for that person’s distress and the best ways to cope with it. This will give you the head space to notice what might be going on for them and what might have caused it. Once you know the cause, you’ll have a better idea of what you can do to help, whether it’s leaving a person or situation alone or making yourself available and open and consciously aware of the emotion. You might even be the cause of their distress!
Train yourself to be aware of your own mood – Our emotions are an unconscious response to outside (or inside) influences, what we see on the outside is feelings. We might not always be aware of these. We use a great bio feedback tool with our clients and it helps people recognise their emotions and feelings based on the bio chemical changes in their skin caused by chemical changes produced by their limbic brain. It s an ideal, visual, early cue as to what sort of emotional reactions your brain might have before you are consciously aware of it.
Practice self-regulation tools and modify your mood – Make eye contact spread positive emotions faster. Limit your gaze with persistently negative people to limit their emotional influence over you. Avoid negative body language. Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has done a lot of research on how simply changing your physical stance or expression can affect your mood. She suggests simply doing a wonder woman (or superman) power pose or putting a pen between your teeth (it forces a smile) can produce dopamine in your brain and positively affect your mood.
Remember your mood matters, you might feel broody, happy, scared or angry and this will infect everyone else around you. If you are a leader your mood matters even more.
Tara Neven is the Co-Founder and Director of neuresource group, a venture that embeds cutting-edge neuroscience research into practical applications for business and the workplace.
Tara is an entrepreneur, business strategist, facilitator, learning and development and collective leadership specialist. She has over 15 years experience in corporate learning and development, education, business growth and organisational development.
Tara is a regular contributor to a number of online and print publications and has presented as Key Note Speaker and Master of Ceremonies at a number of Australian industry conferences on subjects such as building ‘brain friendly’ organisations, leadership development, and human capital value.
Tara can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org