Emotional Contagion at Work
By Pam Kennett, Chiswick Consulting
Positive psychology (PP) has attracted much attention of late, particularly with the increasing focus on employee engagement and how to encourage and enable individuals to flourish and succeed in the workplace. PP presents a number of useful models which help us understand, at a deeper level, what impacts an individual’s engagement at work.
Emotions are a crucial aspect of how we experience our day to day working lives. They are seen as useful markers of optimal wellbeing; experiencing more positive than negative emotions contributes to our happiness.
There are significant benefits to employing happy workers. Happy workers take less time off, are less stressed and demonstrate higher levels of creativity, organisational citizenship, cooperation, problem solving and performance (Lyubomirsky, King, & Diener, 2005). Providing frequent opportunities to experience positive emotions and thereby increase happiness is a way in which organisations can increase workforce positivity and engagement.
Broaden & Build
Barbara Fredrickson’s ‘Broaden & Build’ theory (1998) proposes that individuals can build their thought processes through frequent experience of positive emotions. When experiencing positive emotions, individuals create more suggestions and think more globally or broadly, helping with creative problem solving.
Positive emotions also provide an antidote to negative emotions and help individuals to recover from an emotionally challenging or negative experience, helping us bounce back from negative experiences such as a poor performance review or a confrontational interaction with an unhappy customer. She found that two emotions in particular, joy and contentment, can undo the aftereffect of negative emotions.
Individual happiness impacts upon organisational happiness through a concept known as emotional contagion. Emotional contagion occurs when individuals mimic another person’s emotional expression and then experience these emotions themselves. This occurs with both negative and positive emotions. Because there has been research to suggest negative emotions have a greater impact than positive emotions (‘bad is bigger’), it is easy to see how a negative mood can spiral within an organisation.
Clearly we need to raise our own levels of self-awareness, around how we are feeling, to understand our potential impact on those around us. Trying to disguise how we are feeling doesn’t really work either: through a process of emotional leakage, others can easily pick up how we are really feeling. For instance, recent developments in neuroscience which include the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) have demonstrated brain to brain transmission of emotions: when an individual feels and appears uneasy about something, others will experience that unease, even when they did not witness the situation (Boyatzis, 2012).
Organisational culture can have an impact on emotions. Organisations which encourage styles of working that are likely to suppress emotions can, in turn, have a negative effect as suppressing positive or negative emotions is associated with high stress. Ironically, carefully worded value statements encouraging us to be happy and upbeat at all times might well be having the opposite effect.
Both negative and positive emotions need to be expressed or ‘aired’. Individuals’ emotions ‘wax and wane’ throughout the day; we need to recognise this and not always expect everyone to be ‘up’ every moment of the day. For instance, a teacher is required to be ‘on show’ when delivering to her class but needs opportunities to ‘let off steam’ and experience different emotions in the staff room.
Encouraging individuals to celebrate success and recall happier times will also help build the emotional fortitude which enables individuals to get through the tough times and prevent negative spirals or emotions.
Specifically, there are some positive psychology interventions (PPI) introduced into organisations which are delivering some great results:
- Mindfulness training– mindfulness helps in a couple of ways: firstly it relieves stress and therefore reduces the potential for negative, inappropriate emotional outbursts (which are spread through emotional contagion); secondly, it raises self-awareness as individuals are more in touch with their emotions through the mindfulness techniques
- Strengths based coaching – a focus on strengths encourages positive emotions and a feel-good factor. Working to one’s strengths also raises an individual’s level of wellbeing
About the author
Pam Kennett is a Management Consultant with more than 25 years’ experience working in management development, marketing and management consultancy.
Pam holds an MBA from Cass Business School and is currently studying for an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.