Bad vibes, it turns out, are contagious.
If you come to work with the flu, your manager would be justified in sending you home. With rest you will recover more quickly and, just as importantly, won’t infect the rest of the team.
If you come to work in a bad mood, can you expect the same response? Highly unlikely, yet moods are just as contagious with positive and negative emotional states behaving like infectious diseases, according to research conducted by Harvard University.
Emotional contagion – the tendency for another person’s feelings to affect yours – has been demonstrated in settings from roommates to teammates and customer service, where “service with a smile” really has been shown to increase customer satisfaction and tipping.
The Harvard University study, led by Alison Hill from the Program of Evolutionary Dynamics, demonstrated that the infectious nature of moods isn’t just a fleeting phenomenon.
When Hill and colleagues applied mathematical modelling used for infectious diseases to her data she found that long-lasting moods can spread over long time frames in large social networks.
Moods spread not only through direct contact, but also indirect contact, extending up to three degrees of separation – to the friends of one’s friends’ friends, according to another study drawing from the same data set that followed 4739 individuals from 1983 to 2003.
While emotional contagion is less studied in the workplace than in the general population, most people can relate to the experience of being uplifted or dragged down by a co-worker’s vibe.
Ian Pratt, project manager for SA Health, remembers his first observation about the impact of a manager’s mood on employees, 22 years ago.
“I was walking down a long corridor in a large manufacturing business and I ran into the operations manager. I asked him how he was and he replied, ‘Excellent!’ I felt uplifted and motivated. I turned the corner in the corridor and ran into the production manager and asked him how he was, and he replied, ‘I am having a f------ s--- day!!’.
“I felt down and like I would not achieve a lot. This had a lasting impact on me. Since then I have experimented with positivity and had great results with my managers, peers and staff.”
When Linda Ray of NeuroCapability runs her Diploma in the Neuroscience of Leadership, she talks about taking responsibility for the emotional wake we take into the room and leave behind.
Leaders, by virtue of their authority, can have a disproportionate impact on the mood of those they supervise.
“The key as a leader is to ask: do I have self-regulation strategies to take the emotion I want to spread around into the room?” says Ray. The catch is, faking it won’t work. While many of us may have a professional work persona, being disingenuous is unlikely to pay off.
Ray explains: “Our brains are hardwired for social connection and can detect if you are pretending. If you fake a smile, our brain picks up that you aren’t using quite the right muscles, for example, detects there’s something wrong and goes into a threat response, causing the release of stress hormones – the opposite to what you are trying to create.”
So what do you do if you’re feeling rotten, but have to lead an important meeting?
“Practising self-regulation before entering a room can authentically alter your state,” Ray says.
“This might sound like, ‘I am feeling pretty awful at the moment and I can feel it in my heart or guts. But I’m still committed to being as good a leader as I can with these people’.”
Indeed, research conducted by Matthew Lieberman, Department of Psychology, University of California, demonstrates that just naming the feeling reduces anxiety by dampening down the limbic response in the brain.
This then frees up the activity of the prefrontal cortex, which governs higher cognitive abilities, allowing people to function more effectively.
And what can you do if you are feeling chirpy but have to rub shoulders with a grumpy colleague all day? The best form of immunisation is self-awareness, according to Ray.
“Notice that the person has those emotions, name them and remind yourself they are not your emotions and you don’t need to be affected by them,” Ray suggests.
“Recognise that you have a choice. Be very mindful of taking a happy break and seek out the company of those who give you energy versus those who are energy zappers.”
Bad news travels faster, sells better and is more likely to make the headlines than good news. So what about bad moods – are they more infectious?
“While it’s inconclusive as to whether unhappiness spreads more quickly than happiness, there’s no doubt that de-energising states are contagious and can spread much deeper into an organisation than people realise,” says Larry Miller, CEO of Activate Networks, a US firm that maps social networks within organisations to discover how information and ideas flow and work gets done.
Hill’s study, however, found evidence that bad moods were significantly more infectious. On average each contact with a person who was content (or happy) increases your probability of becoming content the following year by 11 per cent, according to the study, while each contact with a person feeling discontent (or unhappy) increases your probability of becoming discontent by 100 per cent.
This may explain why it’s so hard to maintain good cheer in the face of another’s discontent and why Ian Pratt found it such hard work to spread good vibes.
“It takes a huge effort from leaders to keep positive stories in place,” says Pratt, who previously spent two to three hours a day sustaining a positive workplace culture by greeting people, giving positive feedback and thanking workers for their contribution.
“If you don’t put in the positives, the negatives readily take hold,” says Pratt.
While spreading happiness can take effort, Hill’s study suggests it’s a good long-term investment as happy mood states lasted longer than unhappy ones.
“The average length of time a person stays in that emotional state is five years for discontentment and 10 years for contentment,” says Hill.
If you don't get off the front foot with low-level stuff, that can set the team environment on a slippery slope.
There are myriad possible and legitimate causes for low mood in the workplace but whatever the cause, stemming the spread is important if it’s leading to uncivil behaviour, according to Dr Peter Cotton, a clinical and organisational psychologist who works with corporates and the government sector. He recommends that leaders nip negativity in the bud.
“If someone is continually being cynical, undermining, uncommunicative or complaining, this can drag a team down over time,” Cotton says.
“And if you don’t get on the front foot with low-level stuff, that can set the team environment on a slippery slope and create fertile ground for bigger-ticket issues such as bullying and increased turnover.”
When working as a manager in his former jobs, Pratt didn’t hesitate to treat negative mood as a performance issue. “I’d say to staff it’s selfish to bring down the people around you, so you need to take responsibility for that,” he says.
“I’d put people on a coaching plan to learn better ways to make their point. It’s not about dismissing a person’s complaint, which can be really valid, but coaching them on their communication style.”
Pratt says he gives team leaders no end of coaching on how to broach the topic with employees, since this is an area where team leaders can lack confidence.
For example, with comments such as: “Jim, the expectation here is that we create a positive environment so everyone can flourish. How do you think you went in today’s team meeting about being positive?”, or “I’m aware you are always looking for development opportunities, but in this organisation you tend to be seen as negative. Let’s work towards a plan on how you can be seen in a more positive light.”
When seeking to stem or spread certain behaviours in the workplace, it’s a mistake to think that leaders are always the most influential.
“We have data from large oil field services showing that while some leaders are at the centre of social networks, others are on the edge,” says Miller, who invariably finds a small subset of individuals has an outsized impact on the behaviour of the group.
The most influential people typically have a large number of social ties (“connectors”) or bridging ties across subgroups (“brokers”) and they can be found at any level of an organisation.
There are dangers associated with being too quick to stamp out bad vibes.
Moody workers can be a valuable marker of a systems problem rather than a personal problem. As a contact centre manager, Pratt discovered that poor job fit was a source of constant complaints among staff.
After improving his recruitment procedures by using a personality profile tool to help screen out people who found it hard to stick to standard procedures – the very nature of call centre work – worker satisfaction improved.
Some mental health conditions, such as depression, can show up as grumpy, irritable behaviour, especially in men. “At least 7 per cent of staff will suffer clinical level depression and many don’t seek help, which can then affect other staff,” says Cotton, also an adviser to beyondblue, the national depression initiative.
“Good managers will have a finger on the pulse and be able to express concern about staff wellbeing,” he says.
“A manager’s role is not to diagnose, but to focus on workplace behaviour and be able to initiate a caring conversation about the behaviour of concern."
How do you catch a mood?
Some put it down to mimicry, where people unconsciously copy the voice, actions and posture, and especially facial expressions, seen in others.
Another mechanism could be the behaviours associated with different feelings.
Happy people might improve the mood of those around them by greeting others nicely, creating a ripple effect.
This article is from the July 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.
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