Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It takes two to tango: emotion is contagious

Key points:

1.     Emotions profoundly affect our behaviour
2.     Emotions are contagious in relationships, families and organisations
3.     Managers/leaders can affect the mood and, hence, employee engagement in their organisations
4.     We can control our moods
5.     Great leaders make a difference to those around them

We, a group of Rotarians in Iluka-Woombah NSW, Australia, put on a stage production for the local community every two years. It is a major fundraiser for our two small villages and for international aide projects. It takes months of rehearsals and preparation, and is, necessarily, also a lot of fun.  It gives a bunch of extroverts a chance to act out and the introverts an opportunity to challenge themselves, although they may see that idea a little differently. The show is mostly comedy and we send up all sorts of famous singers and acts with extravagant costumes and interpretations.

Our opening night was last Friday, a full house. The dress rehearsal a few days earlier had been a bit of a mess so the cast were a little nervous and also keen to do their best. The director worked hard to fire everyone up and there was a group huddle on stage before we started, a bit like football teams: motivational. Normally, our Friday night crowds are a bit quiet so we expected that we would need to work hard for laughs: lots of effort needed.

Right from the start the crowd were right into the show, laughing, whooping and responding. With that we were away and played right up to them. It was a great night and everyone enjoyed themselves, cast included.

The next night, Saturday, we expected the crowd to be lively with higher levels of blood alcohol. So, we didn’t work so hard. And the crowd was much quieter than we expected with a different demographic than normal. It was all a bit flat. It was difficult to work hard and when we did the response was less enthusiastic than we expected. People still enjoyed the show and the feedback was great, but the cast were a little deflated. Thus, we had two different experiences.

This all made me think about how our moods feed off each other, quite subconsciously. When people are feeling flat, dysphoric, or unmotivated, it can affect how others feel. Even though, initially, a person might be feeling quite good, they become dragged down. Similarly, when someone is cheerful, motivated, they can lift people around them. I suspect this is true for a whole bunch of emotions including anger, grumpiness, feeling energised, and so on.

There is some research evidence to support this notion of emotional contagion and there is a nice summary of it in Psychology Today at: http://
bit.ly/130Z2CP. It seems that we do indeed mimic or take on the emotions of others. I suspect that this may be personality based in that some people are more likely to ‘catch’ emotions from others such as people high on the agreeableness and extraversion traits.

Environmental psychology has been around for a lot longer than this more recent work on emotional contagion. It is the study of how humans are affected by their surroundings. For a long time now we have known that weather can affect behavior and the fact that people living in countries that have long, dark winters have high rates of seasonal depression. Unpleasant workplaces and living environments can have detrimental effects too on mood, productivity and performance.

So, it is not surprising that we can ‘catch’ emotions from others around us. The implications for this in relationships, families and organisations are pretty clear I think, so I won’t go into too much detail. But clearly we need to be careful about the company we keep. For many years now I have tried to avoid noxious people where possible, even eschewing friendship where necessary. Noxious people make me feel bad.

Managers/leaders in organisations can probably go a long way to setting the tone in their sphere of influence. An unhappy, grumpy manager who is having a bad hair day can create a bad case of emotional flu that will spread throughout the department and reduce engagement. The converse is also true. If motivational techniques work for sports teams, and I can assure you that they do, perhaps we can learn something about this for making work places more pleasant to increase employee engagement. All it takes is a bit of mindfulness and effort. Perhaps this is what great leaders do: life their people by their behavior.

Lastly, and I’ll write more about this in my next blog, there are ways to control our emotions. In effect it is possible to fake a positive emotion and the end result is that we actually start to feel better: our mood lifts. But more of that next time.


  1. I think the organisation I am working with at the moment has a bad case of emotional flu, and I agree that it very demotivating. A skill set definitely needs to be developed to help individuals to "fake it till they make it" and maybe this will be a new growth area for trainers. In lieu of that someone needs to come up with an emotion-repelling force-field so that workers can get on with their day and not get caught up in someone else's 'bad hair day' as you so eloquently put it.

    1. It's surprising how people don't realise the impact their behaviour has on people.

  2. I like the idea of a 'force field' to repel noxious emotions and people.