How to be Positively Contagious


The impact of Emotional Contagion and how to manage it.

I was happily stowing my laptop in the seat pocket in front of me when I glanced to my left. My neighbour was looking distinctly uncomfortable. Forty minutes and several sideways glances at him later and I had started to feel nervous. Normally a relaxed flyer I began to wonder what I had missed about our flight that was giving him so much cause for concern. The answer, of course, was nothing. But, he was demonstrably stressed and whilst we hadn’t exchanged a word I was beginning to feel anxious too.

This is emotional contagion, the result of our innate human tendency to mimic each other’s body language, facial expressions, speech patterns and verbal tones. It is at the heart of what allows us to understand and share the feelings of others and is crucial to our ability to empathise and build rapport.

How does it work?

Put simply, if I smile at you, you will smile back and in doing so you will experience the emotion associated with smiling i.e. you will feel happy. There are numerous theories discussing whether this system of mimicry, feedback and contagion is conscious or unconscious. However, the purpose of this article is to consider how emotional contagion might be affecting you and those around you.

Why does it matter?

Our primitive survival instinct ensures we pay more attention to, and place greater weight on, information that we perceive to be negative, which means that unpleasant emotions are more likely to lead to mood contagion than pleasant ones. Yet, it is also known that positive emotional contagion improves an individual’s cognitive ability, particularly logical reasoning and problem-solving (Sullivan & Conway 1989) and improved team dynamics and performance outcomes (Barsade 1991).

Therefore, being aware of and managing emotional contagion is key to your ability to encourage collaboration, deal with conflict, negotiate effectively and improve performance, regardless of whether you are in a leadership role, work in a team or with individuals.

How can you use Emotional Contagion to improve performance?

Step One – Self-Awareness

As with most cognitive and behavioural changes, understanding your own moods and the impact they are having on others is the starting point. Do you notice your mood bringing your team down if you are feeling negative about something (which may be totally unrelated to the subject at hand)? Conversely, do you notice that if you are feeling motivated, energised and happy you are able to lift the energy in a room or motivate your team or an individual more effectively.

Step Two – Self-Management 

Having monitored your impact on others, next time you are preparing for a meeting, pitch or presentation, consider the facial expressions and body language you will need to utilise to affect the behaviours required to achieve your objectives.

Step Three – Communicate

When you notice that the mood of someone else is affecting others, talk to them about it. Perhaps they are not aware of their own impact and could benefit from Steps 1 and 2.

Step Four – Emotional vs. Cognitive Values

Organisational values tend to be cognitive e.g. Innovate, Collaborate, however, introduce an emotional value such as Kindness and you could utilise Emotional Contagion to positive affect. Be kind, feel kind and our innate mimicry, feedback and contagion process will do the rest.

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