Germs and colds aren’t the only things we spread in the workplace. Our emotions, both positive and negative, are just as contagious. Have you ever walked into a meeting and felt so much tension that you became tense, too? Conversely, have you ever walked into someone’s office and felt so much openness that you started to feel more open and welcoming as well? This spreading of emotions from one person to the next is what psychologists call Social Contagion Theory. Here’s how it works.
Human beings are hard-wired to mimic the facial expressions and moods of those we come in contact with. Sigal Barsade, associate management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, claims we can unconsciously “catch” both good and bad moods. And you can “catch” these emotions in a matter of milliseconds according to Elaine Hatfield, psychology professor at the University of Hawaii and co-author of Emotional Contagion.
Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden showed people pictures of both happy and angry faces for a fraction of a second and observed how people reacted. When participants looked at pictures of happy faces, their own facial expressions mirrored the picture – they responded with a smile. Similarly when participants viewed pictures of angry faces, they responded with a frown.
According to Hatfield, incremental muscle movements, like the smile or the frown, actually trigger the brain to feel that emotion. For example, when we feel happy our brain sends us a message: smile. But it works the other way, too. When we see someone else smile our brain sends us another message: smile. This very act of smiling sends another message to our brain, telling us to feel happy. So maybe our mothers were really on to something when they told us to quit mopping around and “put on a happy face.”
So what does this have to do with managing your team’s energy? Your own emotions have more influence over your team’s energy level and subsequent productivity than perhaps you realize.
Carlos arrives at the office at 7:45 sharp every day. Two of his employees, Rachel and Mike, like to get in around 7:00 so they can grab a cup of coffee, catch up on emails, and get ready for the day ahead. Every morning they look up from their desks as Carlos walks in. Rachel and Mike have an inside joke:“We can tell what kind of day it’s going to be around here by Carlos’ morning expression. If he smiles and says ‘Good morning’ we know it’s going to be a good day, and we can get on with our work. If his head is down and he doesn’t even acknowledge us, we know it’s going to be a bad day and we better be ready to jump at a moment’s notice. When our teammates arrive around 8:00, they stop by our desks and ask, ‘So what kind of day is it going to be?’ and they’re not talking about the weather.” Researchers at the University of Michigan found that when business leaders were in a good mood, their team members experienced more positive and fewer negative moods.
Additionally, if the boss is in a good mood, the team finds it much easier to accomplish their tasks. Sy and colleagues have found that if you manage or lead others, your moods are even more contagious! Think of it this way: a manager’s negative moods are like spreading a cold, maybe even a flu, in the office. Do you really want people at work feeling lousy and having declining productivity? Or do you want to pay attention to your non-verbal behavior, and be aware of how people “catch” your emotions?
Barstade, S. (2002). The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior.
Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L., (1993). Emotional Contagion (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction). Cambridge University Press.
Sy, T., Côté, S, & Saavedra, R., (2005). The contagious leader: impact of the leader’s mood on the mood of group members, group affective tone, and group processes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(2): 295-305. Abstract.
Images: germs, faces smiling, angry, smiling.
Dr. George Vaillant’s article yesterday, “A Fresh Take on Meaning,” is getting some traction on DIGG. If you liked it, please go here to digg it: CLICK HERE.
Great article, Ladies!
To the point, concrete, powerful and memorable! I hope lots of leaders and managers around the world get to read it!
Looking forward to the book!
This is definitely one of the articles here that I love most!!
I am very much looking forward to the book and also strongly believe that Positive Psychology is going to change the commercial world! I can already image how business people would like this book!
Thank you, Margaret and Senia, for bringing positive social contagion to the forefront. Congragulations on your new book– I love the title! It will be a tremendous contribution to the world of business books– and a refreshing perspective.
I would like to pre-order your book but couldn’t find the title at Amazon.com. Could you let us know how we can make an order? Thanks!
Margaret and Senia,
Great article. I am facilitating a communications course at work and plan to reference your article and upcoming book with the course participants. Thanks much!
Thank you for the great encouragement!
Thanks for the positive words. We, too, believe that positive psychology can change the business world, so stay tuned!
You live in this business world, so it’s great to hear your perspective.
Terry – that is so cool! Glad you can use the info — that’s what we’re all about: practical application.
Ni Hao – thank you for your interest in our book Profit From the Positive. We are still writing chapters and hope to have it published in 2009. In the meantime, we will continue publish excerpts on Positive Psychology News Daily.