From the desk of Nick Mills…

I’ve had loads of experience in different working environments dealing with all sorts of temperaments. Like me, you’ve probably noticed that it takes only one negative person to wreak havoc with everyone’s equilibrium.  This is known as emotional contagion. Find out what you can do to to minimise it in your workplace…



Terri checked herself in the mirror a final time before walking out the door of the serviced apartment she’d been staying in for the past month.  She had recently been promoted to the role of Human Resources Manager of a medium-sized service organisation.  As part of her promotion, she had been required to relocate to the nation’s capital from her home city to manage a highly engaged and functioning team that she had already been a part of for a few years. Now she was their manager.

Even though she had been in the role for just under a month and knew it was going to take a while to settle in, Terri fought hard to overcome the sense of dread that she increasingly felt each morning before arriving at the office.  She knew the job was a big step up from her previous role and that it was just the challenge she had craved, and yet the settling in process had not gone to plan.

The team that reported to her had changed their tune. Previously they’d been accepting, challenging, engaged, and cohesive.  Now the team members seemed outwardly hostile towards her.

Janelle, the previous manager, had been competent and charming, a ‘great manager’ over the years. Terri knew she had big shoes to fill in order to keep the team happy, motivated, and working together as well as they had been. Just now, however, that seemed all too impossible. What had changed? 

As a leader, it’s your job to set the climate for your team in the workplace.  In reality, everyone in the team contributes to the emotional ‘temperature’ of the workplace.  MORE
If we think of emotion transfer on a scale of unproductive versus productive, then we can start to work out the behaviours that will help to facilitate either end of the spectrum.
2014-07-23 12.13.51
Psychologists Elaine Hatfield, John Cacioppo, and Richard Rapson have extensively researched emotional contagion and have found that emotions are just as contagious in the workplace as colds or flu.  That might seem a little obvious as it’s something we always thought was happening, now we have some science to prove it.  If that’s the case, then we can just as easily manipulate the emotional ‘climate’ the way we do the thermostat —  by our actions both as leaders or as followers.

At its simplest, emotional contagion refers to a set of processes which enable us to ‘catch’ another person’s emotion. It’s defined as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronise facial expressions, vocalisations, postures, and movements with those of another person, and, consequently, to converge emotionally.” Most of these processes are largely automatic, so we tend to take on the powerful feelings we feel around us.

It relies mainly on non-verbal communication, although it has been demonstrated that emotional contagion can, and does, occur via telecommunication. For example, people interacting through emails and ‘chats’ are affected by the other’s emotions, even without being able to perceive the non-verbal cues.

This in contrast to cognitive empathy, which requires you to make an explicit set of inferences in order to know what the other person is feeling or thinking. Practicing insight and working hard to be aware of one’s own feelings as well as the emotional states of others can help to keep emotional contagion at bay.

Organisational psychologists that highlight the benefits of work-teams have come to see that emotions come into play and that a group emotion is formed.

The group’s emotional state has an influence on factors such as cohesiveness, morale, rapport, and the team’s performance. For this reason, organisations need to take into account the factors that shape the emotional state of the work-teams, in order to harness the beneficial sides and avoid the detrimental sides of the group’s emotion. Managers and team leaders should be even more cautious with their behavior, since their emotional influence is greater than that of a ‘regular’ team member. It has been shown that leaders are more emotionally ‘contagious’ than others.

This unproductive end of the  ’emotional contagion’ spectrum increases the threat state in the brain.  Blame, fear, and mistrust rise. We begin to see each other as enemies, not as people.
Terri realised that anxiety about her new position was creeping into her tone of voice, her word choice, her gestures and even the way she entered the room. This put everyone on edge. Adding to that, each member of the team brought his or her own mood into the workplace. Because a new leader automatically brought a degree of uncertainty, the group emotion was growing increasingly toxic. Terri realised that if she didn’t act quickly to halt the contagion.
She took extra time in the morning to ground herself, practising deep breathing to stay calm. She cultivated a positive outlook and made efforts to convey this by smiling and nodding. She made sure to give undivided attention to her staff when they were speaking, looking them in the eye, making sure they saw she was considering what they said, sincerely asking for their input. 
In no time, she found that going to work each day was something she looked forward to. Her team was working at a high state of cohesiveness and they seemed to genuinely care for each other. She had transcended the rocky start, productivity rose. Terri was especially delighted to overhear her employees raving about her ‘working style’.
Like Terri, the goal of all striving leaders should be to reach the productive state of ‘true empathy’. The result? True trust, true respect, proper engagement.