Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Social contagion is a term for moods spreading from person to person. We are physically constructed to make this possible. Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence (2007) writes about mirror neurons that fire in response to observing behavior or emotions in others. “For instance, when volunteers lay in an fMRI watching a video showing someone smile or scowl, most brain areas that activated in the observers were the same as those active in the person displaying the emotion, though not as extreme.” (p. 42). We pick up emotions from others not just because we see and interpret them rationally, but also because we experience them directly in the firing of our mirror neurons.
Social contagion can be in either positive or negative directions. Gratitude and gloom can both spread rapidly through groups.So what can we do to increase the probability that the moods that spread around and through us are positive rather than negative? I have some suggestions that involve paying attention to the connections we have with others throughout the day. By connections, I mean brief exchanges, not deep relationships. Jane Dutton in Energize your Workplace (2003, p. 2), “Any point of contact with another person can potentially be a high-quality connection. One conversation, one e-mail exchange, one moment of connecting in a meeting can infuse both participants with a greater sense of vitality, giving them a bounce in their steps and a greater capacity to act.“
- Let your good moods show. When I’m feeling happy, I notice that people I pass in the hallway smile back at me. Presumably that means their mirror neurons are giving them a quick taste of the good feelings that I am experiencing.
- Pay attention to the quality of your own connections with others, seeking to behave in ways that create high-quality connections. According to Jane Dutton, the strategies that lead to high-quality connections in a workplace involve little actions that build trust, show respectful engagement, and enable others to do their tasks effectively, such as teaching, advocating for them, and accommodating their preferences.These strategies line up with the model tested by Tsai, Chen, and Liu to explain the linkage between positive mood and task performance via the following mediators: helping others and being helped, self-efficacy, and task persistence. High-quality connections boost positive affect, increase the likelihood that people will help each other, and increase the energy that people have for persisting at tasks, all of which contribute to better task performance.
The rest of the suggestions involve buttressing yourself against the contagion from gloomy or corrosive connections.
- Make a conscious effort not to join in unless there’s something constructive you can do. When a friend or loved one is miserable, I have learned to actively resist joining in the gloom. A few years ago, I started telling myself, “Just because he/she is unhappy, doesn’t mean I have to be unhappy as well.” I don’t deny the other person’s unhappiness. I just resist joining it. I used to become unhappy and then get angry at the other person because I didn’t want to be unhappy. You can imagine how much that helped. Now I try to stay detached from the emotions.
- Protect yourself from corrosive connections, those exchanges at work that make people feel diminished. This can be difficult, especially when these connections are with supervisors or higher status people. In many workplaces, people rise to high positions without necessarily having any talent or desire for creating high-quality connections. They may hoard information or judge others harshly or make small disparaging comments or withhold attention. Some people just do not pay any attention to the impact of their moods and behaviors on other people.I recommend reading the chapter on corrosive connections in Jane Dutton’s book because she has some effective strategies. To begin with, it helps to name the experience and detach yourself from responsibility for it. So-and-so just said something that humiliated you. Perhaps it’s not about you – but about the other person’s social ineptness. Even bigshots can be pretty socially inept.
- Avoid complaining. Atul Gawande lists this as one of the 5 actions for becoming a positive deviant. (See here for a discussion of positive deviance.) Getting together in groups to complain about something is a recipe for a downward spiral. Someone is bound to mention some other negative aspect that you hadn’t thought of yet.
This ability to mirror other’s experiences in our own brains leaves us open to social contagion in either upward or downward spirals. With some attention, we can raise the probability that we experience upward rather than downward spirals. In the workplace, this is important because our moods contribute to our task performance.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Gawande, A. (2008). Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance. New York: Picador Books.
Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam Books.
Marsden, P. (1998). Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?. Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2. Retrieved April 7, 2008 from http://www.viralculture.com/pubs/socialcontagion.htm
Tsai, W.-C., Chen, C.-C., & Liu, H.-L. (2007). Test of a model linking employee positive moods and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 1570-1583.
Abstract: Past empirical evidence has demonstrated that employees’ positive mood states predict task performance. This study extends previous research by proposing and testing a model that examines mediating processes underlying the relationship between employee positive moods and task performance. Two longitudinal studies used data collected from 306 (Study 1) and 263 (Study 2) insurance sales agents in Taiwan. The results showed that employee positive moods predicted task performance indirectly through both interpersonal (helping other coworkers and coworker helping and support) and motivational (self-efficacy and task persistence) processes.
Upward Spiral courtesy of Antonis Lamnatos