We’ve all had that life experience where a group activity is going smoothly and morale is high… up until that one person walks in with what we might call “negative energy”. It’s almost like the spell of positivity and efficiency is over, and negative emotions spread throughout the rest of the group. The group dynamic can be immensely impacted by a single person or small group of people who project their emotions onto the rest of the team, whether it be consciously or subconsciously. As highly emotional animals, humans will pick up on other peoples’ signals like body language and energy levels, and often their own experience will change as a result. This type of mimicry is called emotional contagion, and it can apply to both positive emotions as well as negative ones. In both cases, emotional contagion has important implications when considering effective teamwork strategies.
While we can imagine the detrimental impacts of negative emotional contagion, one study found group members subjected to positive emotional contagion “experienced improved coordination, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.” The researchers point to organizations like Mary Kay Cosmetics that use recognition dinners and other tactics to purposefully create positive emotional contagion throughout their company. Understanding that their employees are affected by the emotions of their coworkers and managers, some companies are choosing to use that tendency to their advantage by striving to create a positive emotional culture that sparks positive emotional contagion.
When you hear someone talk about workplace culture, most of the time they are talking about “cognitive culture” or the intellectual values and general guidelines for what is expected of employees. The other important side of company culture, however, is emotional culture. Because of emotional contagion, every company has an emotional culture; it’s up to management whether or not they consciously try to make it a positive emotional culture. When emotions like anger and fear dominate the office atmosphere, performance and employee retention can suffer. As this Harvard Business Review article discusses, even something like a list of rules on the wall can contribute to a culture of fear whereas decorative pictures of happy people engaging in social activities can play a part in a culture of joy.
In this Forbes article, author Karl Sun explores the culture of gratitude he tries to foster in his company, Lucid. He quickly points out how leading by example is critical and therefore calls for management to push past any initial discomfort in order to jumpstart the gratitude culture. In addition, Sun highlights keys when expressing gratitude to employees such as consistency, authenticity, specificity, and humility. Importantly, he considers how avenues for recognition and expression of gratitude need to be in use in order for employees to actually reap the benefits of a culture of gratitude, which include increased job satisfaction and health, both physical and mental. Once proper avenues are in place, members of the office can slow down long enough to remember who/what they are grateful for, and contribute to the positive emotional culture by recognizing their coworkers in a way that will be inherently contagious.