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Emotions are contagious — make sure they're positive: The Behaviorist

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Kedren Crosby, president of Work Wisdom LLC
Kedren Crosby, president of Work Wisdom LLC - (Photo / )

During this record-breaking flu season, I want to highlight the equally powerful effect of emotional contagion in organizations.

We might not realize it, but we very much rely on connections with other people for our emotional stability, which is why the “open-loop system” of organizational life is so important to recognize. We can’t begin to improve our organization’s culture or climate unless we learn about emotional contagion.

Our bodies take on the same physiological traits of the person we are with, a process that is called “mirroring.” Mirroring is particularly noticeable during conflict, but also in positive interactions. Emotions spread whenever people are together, even when there is no verbal communication. The more cohesive the group, the stronger the contagion.

Leaders have the strongest contagion in the limbic open-loops of groups. People unconsciously absorb emotional cues from leadership. Other unofficial thought leaders who are dominant and charismatic significantly affect the emotional climate of the organization, too.

Laughter is a particularly viral emotion, according to a study at Yale University, which found that cheerfulness and warmth spread most readily. Laughter creates a spontaneous chain reaction. Smiles are the most contagious. Happiness boosts cooperation, fairness and performance. Leaders who are negative, cold and domineering repel people, whereas leaders who are optimistic and enthusiastic are magnets for talent. Emotions like distress not only hinder mental skills, but also make people less able to read others’ emotional states.

Upward spirals of positive emotion improve long-term thinking and build a more resilient organization for the future. The upward spiral works with positive emotions like joy, excitement, contentment and serenity. Most importantly, those who experienced positive emotions in the workplace were found to be more accurate and careful in decision-making and more interpersonally effective in a leaderless group discussion.

Positive emotions like compassion and empathy can have unintended negative consequences if given too much weight. Because they are finite, they can deplete themselves. If one empathizes at work all day, there is less empathy left for your family at night. We tend to empathize with those we like more than we do with those outside our circle. This causes preferential empathy and even aggression toward outsiders, which essentially erodes ethics. Empathy toward fellow employees can inhibit whistle-blowing, as we have seen in cases of sexual abuse and harassment.

Researchers studying Google found the best teams had high “social sensitivity,” meaning they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on nonverbal cues. These traits are reflective of what Harvard University professor Amy Edmondson calls “psychological safety.” It’s a climate in which one can enjoy interpersonal trust and be themselves. Google’s data showed that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to having a successful team.

Google set out to build psychological safety into the behavioral norms, climate and culture of the organization. The company agreed to adopt norms to make extra efforts to let team members know how their work fit into Google’s larger mission and to try harder to notice when someone on the team was feeling excluded or sad. They also agreed to conversational turn-taking and the use of empathy to build human bonds at work.

A Googler is quoted as saying, “The thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work then I’m not really living, am I?”

Because of the open-loop nature of emotions, climate and culture, people in groups catch feelings through mimicry. Consciously modeling key emotions is a start, but leaders can also add them into their core values (Zappos, Whole Foods and Southwest all list “love” or “caring” among their corporate values). With any effective culture shaping, efforts to embed new positive, emotionally intelligent norms must be driven by top-level leaders.

Companies, nonprofits and government entities can all better serve their missions, stakeholders and employees by recognizing the power of emotional contagion as they develop high-performance organizational climates and cultures.

Kedren Crosby is president of Work Wisdom LLC, a Lancaster-based firm specializing in organizational culture, communication, collaboration, conflict and coaching. She can be reached at or 717-327-7780.

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