World of Work

Emotions can be contagious in the workplace

It's flu season again and contagion is on the minds of many people, but influenza may not be the only thing contagious at work this winter. Emotions can spread just as virally as a bad bug.

Managers are no longer thought to work on a purely rational level

It's flu season again and contagion is on the minds of many people, but influenza may not be the only thing contagious at work this winter. Emotions can spread just as virally as a bad bug.

A former colleague of mine would unknowingly compel his entire staff to have a secret stand-up meeting just after his arrival each morning. They would assess his mood and steady themselves. If he was agitated and impatient, the most frequent manifestation of his mood, it spread and it meant another day of walking on eggshells. Apparently, the boss had no sense of how much his emotions impacted others and that they were in fact contagious.

Neil Ashkanasy, a noted academic in the field of emotions at work, has long argued that “someone comes into a group displaying a particular emotional face, and in a remarkably short period of time that person infects the other people in the group.”

No wonder we are brought down by a grumpy colleague or inspired by a realistically optimistic one. It becomes a game of monkey-see, monkey-do played at an emotional level. So not only are our colleague’s moods and emotions contagious, we actively, albeit somewhat subconsciously, not only pick up on such emotions, we take them on as our own.

Leaders, by virtue of their authority, exert a disproportionate impact on the mood of those they supervise.- Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project

The implications for leaders are significant. Productivity expert Tony Schwartz, CEO and founder of the Energy Project, states “Leaders, by virtue of their authority, exert a disproportionate impact on the mood of those they supervise” in his Harvard Business Review article entitled Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team. This differs from the notion that employees leave their emotions at the door and managers were thought to operate on a purely rational level. We now understand that feelings flavour how we take in information impacting our decisions and ultimately, workplace outcomes.

Canadian researchers Céleste Brotheridge and Raymond Lee in their article The Emotions of Managing in the Journal of Managerial Psychology captured it well when they said “the traditional stereotype of the exclusively rational manager has been replaced by one in which managers are expected to create and nourish positive relationships by effectively managing their own emotions and those of their employees.” This is in line with the body of work in Emotional Intelligence from Daniel Goleman which popularized EQ as well as new ongoing current research linking feelings and emotions to performance.

This a far cry from the famous quote by NASA administrator Michael Griffin when he said “I'll have time for feelings after I'm dead. Right now we're busy.” He was speaking about the launch of the space shuttle Discovery, after discussing the horror and sadness at losing the Columbia space shuttle three years earlier.

Brotheridge and Lee go on to say “Managers need to be aware of the impact that their expressed emotions have on their work units' emotional climate, their employees' emotions, their effectiveness as well as that of their employees, and the organization's overall success.”

Consultant and change expert Elaine Leclerc, based in Fredericton, frequently asks workshop participants to identify which emotional state they most respond to in times of change. Not surprisingly people speak of optimism and hope as being required to compel people to consider change, develop trust and ultimately follow the leader.

I believe we all have a responsibility to be mindful of our moods and emotions and recognize their impact on others as well as the way it impacts our perceptions and our decisions.

For leaders there is the added responsibility to actively manage negativity and harmful emotions on the job.

So let this be a reminder during the dark days of winter that emotions in the workplace are as contagious as the flu and we all need to mind the contagion by spreading hope and optimism and quarantining the harmful emotions for our sake, that of others and our organizations.

About the Author

Pierre Battah

Human resource management consultant

Pierre Battah is Information Morning's Workplace Specialist. Battah & Associates is a management consulting firm specializing in Human Resource Management.


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