How emotions spread at work

Emotions at work
In a recent study by Andrew Oswald at Warwick Business School it was concluded that there was a positive link between workers happiness and productivity. The team conducted a range of exercises in their research. In one, students were asked to add a series of two digit numbers in ten minutes. The subjects were paid an attendance fee, and a performance fee based on how they performed. Some were then shown a ten minute film based on comedy routines. The film apparently led to an increase in the self reported happiness levels of participants compared to those who did not see it or who watched placebo film clips.

For those that reported higher levels of happiness, after seeing the film, productivity in a subsequent test was significantly higher. They noted, “happier workers were 12% more productive”. They also noted that those participants who watched the film but did not feel any happier did not demonstrate improved productivity. They also concluded that if happiness in the workplace was associated with increased productivity then the human resource departments would need to consider these implications.
This was reported in the media as groundbreaking research, however it merely adds to the body of findings from the field of Positive Psychology, which has a far more nuanced understanding of the role of emotions in the workplace. Emotions, both “negative” and “positive” have a vital role at work. They are a call to action to help change behaviours. There is a danger in that this type of research might suggest that positive emotions are appropriate in all workplace settings. One of the major points of Emotional intelligence training is to impress on people that different situations, tasks at work and types of thinking require different types of emotions to be generated. For example, research indicates that where fine attention to detail is required, eg when studying the findings of a report, it’s more useful to foster serious, almost downbeat emotions. Where creative, blue sky thinking is required it’s more useful to engender a fun, light hearted approach. So clearly before HR departments rush out and hire comedians its worthwhile understanding that context and task are at least as important as creating a fun place to work.
However most of the research to date suggests that happier, more engaged staff perform better overall. We need to learn skills to help us switch between emotions in a calm manner and have the ability to return to the default position, within the organization, of happy and upbeat.

Contagious emotions
I am fascinated by the research about how we transfer emotions between each other. For example Ebling & Levenson, in their 2003 study, suggest that people have a simplistic system of attract vs. repulse and these prime directives are expressed in signals on our faces. 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 may be both display cabinet and creator of authentic emotions.

In Mullen’s 1986 study of the influential effects of Newscaster expressions on presidential elections, the conclusion is that, micro facial expressions have a significant impact on peoples attract/repulse 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. As far back as 1980 Wells & Petty illustrated how facial impression and movement of the head (nodding agreement) can be influenced by “senders” of energy and this in turn influences decision making and mood. Positive and negative emotions are as much an outside in as an inside out mechanism.

In 2005 Losada studied a number of management teams formulating business plans. He observed the relationship between the volume of positive expressions to negative expressions between team members (both verbal and non verbal). He then looked at the performance of the teams in the following period and found that the transmission of positive and negative energy, through words and non verbal expression, was shown to lead to a state of flourishing, if the ratio was greater than 2.9. In that study flourishing was defined as the profitability of the team as well as customer and staff satisfaction. In a 2004 study Shelly 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.
Barbara Fredrickson has spent many years investigating the effects of positive emotions such as joy, interest, contentment and love and has concluded the following:
– They allow us to think in a broad expansive manner
– They undo the effects of negative emotions on physiology, the way you think and the way you act
– They build intellectual, physical, social and psychological resources; and
– They create a virtuous spiral of emotions leading to increasing levels of wellbeing.

The Losada research also looked at teams where there was a ratio of positive to negative expressions in excess of 8 to 1 and found that these teams were also languishing rather than flourishing. This points to the obvious conclusion that we need some bite in the workplace as well as nurturing.  I think that the key points that HR departments need to draw from this research are as follows:
– Ensure that staff have a clear understanding of how to use emotions at work, in particular how to match the appropriate emotion to the task in hand
– Be aware that because emotions are easily transferable and escalate its easy for the mood of an organization to tilt into a downward spiral (below the magic number of 2.9)
– Get into the habit of celebrating the strengths and achievements of individuals and teams
– Find authentic, fun ways to raise the overall mood of the organization
If you are interested in how we measure happiness and engagement at work, or to find out more about our Emotional Intelligence courses and Positive Psychology at work programs go

Also use the Mayers Salovey model to measure your emotional intelligence


Posted on October 4, 2011, in positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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