• The magazine for physical and mental fitness


Emotional Contagion


Emotional contagion

This week’s newsletter is about how to cultivate the right atmosphere at work.  It’s an essential read for anyone working in a team who wants to improve individual and group efficiency, trust and wellbeing. The summary takes two minutes to read.

How emotions spread at work

In a 2003 study Ebling & Levenson suggest that people have a simplistic system of like and dislike and these deeply embedded instincts are expressed as signals on our faces.  For example when one group of individuals are asked to remember a stressful event they produce identifiable, common facial patterns.  When a second group is asked to mimic some of these expressions, without being asked to consider a stressful event, both groups suffer similar physiological effects.  This implies that the face not only mimics inner thoughts and feelings but also drives these processes.  The face can be both display cabinet and creator of authentic emotions. 

How we feel on the inside is displayed on the outside.  Other pieces of research inform us that these feelings can be transmitted to others influencing our decisions, our mood and our wellbeing.

Back in 1986 Mullen studied the influential effects of Newscaster expressions on presidential elections.  He concluded that, micro facial expressions have a significant impact on people’s like/dislike mechanism.  A newscaster’s clear positive favouritism towards one candidate was shown to influence voting patterns.  The study noted that this was in spite of the tendency of the news channel in question to run negative stories about the candidate.  The positive micro expressions seemed to be more influential than the negative words expressed.

These pieces of research (and many hundreds of others) indicate that our inner feelings are displayed to others and in order to assist with the cultivation of strong teams we need to develop genuine positive regard for colleagues because our authentic feelings shine through.  False positivity is transparent and undermining.  We need to find a way to express our truth clearly whilst developing positive regard for the person.

In a study of management teams  formulating business plans Losada and Fredrickson noted that the transmission of positive and negative emotions, through words and non verbal expression, lead to a state of flourishing if the ratio was greater than about  3 to 1, whilst less than 3 lead to a state languishing.  Flourishing was defined in this context as, the profitability of the team as well as customer and staff satisfaction.  Although this research has faced some opposition many other studies have illustrated clearly the impact of emotional transfer on the effectiveness of teams.

Shelly (2004) found that when there is a supportive network of people, to share positive events with, it is the sharing and rejoicing of an event that leads to greater wellbeing than the event itself.  The degree to which positive, affirming words and body language are used in relation to sharing an event predicts the level to which wellbeing is raised. 

Feeling good seems to have a profound impact upon workplace productivity.  Andrew Oswald at Warwick University and many others have found a strong relationship between workplace productivity, communication and wellbeing.  Our mood impacts how we perform at work and how the team performs and our mood can be transferred through emotional contagion.

We can conclude from these pieces of research that a genuine appreciation of colleagues is an important thing to cultivate.  It’s associated with lower levels of stress, a greater sense of interpersonal trust in a team, more sharing of information, increased productivity levels and general wellbeing. Emotions are transferred around a group and impact everyone’s performance.  We recommend the following;

  • develop a strengths based approach  in order to identify, celebrate and use individual and group strengths effectively
  • organise the workplace environment to create an environment which matches task to the appropriate emotion – for example light, fun and upbeat environments for creativity meetings and calm environments for research etc
  • introduce mindfulness programs to help the team feel calm and balanced – remember emotions flow between team members.  Cultivating a calm and relaxed environment helps the individual and is reflected around the group
  • get into the habit of continuing to develop positive regard for the person and making sure that there is a clear separation of criticism of an action of an individual and the underlying respect for the person

Our next Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence courses are in Sydney and London