Emotional contagion; how emotions spread at work

Contagious emotions
I am fascinated by the research about how emotions are transferred between us. For example in their 2003 study Ebling & Levenson  suggest that people have a simplistic subconscious  system of attract versus repulse and these prime directives are expressed in signals on our faces.

As far back as 1986 Mullen’s  study of the influential effects of Newscaster expressions on presidential elections, concluded 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. In 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.

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 a display cabinet for emotions and also act as a creator of authentic emotions.

Emotions in the workplace

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 emotions, 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

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 an organization which is happy and upbeat.  In our next newsletter we will explore a simple system for recognising, using, understanding and managing emotions in the workplace.

 

 

Posted on May 16, 2012, in Coaching, Meditation etc., positive psychology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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