Emotional Contagion: Containing Bad Attitudes in Your Workplace

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When we reflect on feelings in the workplace, most of us think we should leave our emotions at the door. After all, doing good work requires you to focus on tasks and accomplishing things, right? And the best way to handle moods and emotions when you want to get something done is to ignore them…. right? 

But if emotions in the workplace don’t matter, Brandon Smith, The Workplace Therapist, wonders why all of our feedback revolve around personal characteristics.

In his TEDx talk about contagious workplace emotions, Smith points out that when we talk about colleagues, we always use words that are emotionally charged:

“She’s super-positive, and she’s got this great attitude!”

“He’s so enthusiastic!”


“Oh, he’s toxic. His attitude is completely cancerous.”

“He’s an emotional vampire.”

And as it turns out, based on a growing body of research, “emotional contagion” is a very real phenomenon. From facial expressions to moods and attitudes, one good (or bad) attitude can spread across your culture from employee to employee. And contrary to the traditional view that we should leave our feelings at home, we actually can’t. Feelings don’t go anywhere, even when we try to repress them — they simply come out in other, uncontrolled ways that have a powerful impact on our performance and company culture.  

Here’s a look at what role emotion plays in forming a company culture and what you can do to contain a culture that’s not as positive as you’d like it to be:

The Culture-Emotion Connections

Emotional contagion is not a new concept; what’s new is simply our awareness of how it affects the workplace. For example, Smith points out that the early test for autism at 6 months old is for a mother to smile at her child and see if the baby smiles back or looks away or around the room. This is a very early stage of mimicking the facial expressions of those around us, and it takes place in the workplace, too — if you’re in a meeting and several people yawn, you’re going to yawn. And if you’re in an environment in which everyone is frowning, you’re going to frown.

Emotions in the workplace go beyond physical imitation and reflexes, however. Smith explains that while we can yawn and move on, emotions stick to us and affect us the rest of the day. And while happiness, fear, and anger are all contagious, negative emotional contagious by far the most powerful. One negative encounter in the morning can easily color all the interactions we have in day and even come home with us in the evening — which is why it’s so important to actively manage the emotions in your workplace.

The emotions of leaders and managers are especially powerful. Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, shared a story on The Harvard Business Review that summarized the immediate and overwhelmingly negative effect a single executive had on his company. His experience is confirmed by research done by Wharton@Work: “Because employees pay great attention to their leaders’ emotions, leaders can strongly influence the mood, and thus attitudes and performance, of their teams through emotional contagion.”

Managing Emotional Contagion in Your Workplace

For Schwartz, the solution was to let go of the negative executive. For most companies, however, it may be impractical or unnecessary to let go of everyone who is perceived to be contributing to a negative culture. Which brings us to the most important questions of all: are negative emotions present in your company culture, and are they spreading?  

Here’s what you can do if you have a sinking suspicion that your company has a contiguous toxic culture:

Take your temperature

You can’t fix what you can’t measure. So, the first step is to find a way to track and measure the “culture temperature” of your work environment so you have a basic understanding of the sources of negative emotion in your company.

The fastest, easiest, and most comprehensive way to take your company’s temperature is to collect systematic feedback through a culture management software (like CultureIQ). But you can also achieve some part of this effect by interviewing your staff and asking them how they feel after meetings with different coworkers and executives.

As Smith shares in his talk, how employees feel around their boss is the best indicator of how a leader is performing. Effective leaders can be firm and deal with difficult situations without alienating their direct reports, so if employees report feeling tired, uncomfortable, or anxious about meetings with certain people, you’re on the right trail.

Weigh emotional skills as well as cognitive skills when hiring

Schwartz writes that “the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, especially so for leaders.” Hire like you believe it, and recruit for positive intelligence.

If you’re set with the team you have, consider devoting professional development training to topics like positive intelligence, emotional contagion, and interpersonal communication skills. As small a commitment as watching a TED talk as a group could spark enough dialogue to have an impact on your culture.

Encourage self-awareness and authenticity

Smith concludes his talk revealing that the most effective way to prevent negative emotional contagion is to be aware of your mood and how it affects others. This is something that you can encourage among leaders and managers as well as reporting employees.  

Team members can practice emotional awareness throughout the day by aiming to share three positive statements for every one negative statement. And whenever possible, model openly clarifying your feelings. Something as simple as starting a meeting by saying, “I am frustrated that this project is delayed, but I do understand the reasons behind it and I don’t think any one person is at fault here,” can take an enormous amount of pressure off of an otherwise loaded situation.

You can’t control every emotion in the workplace, and that’s actually the point of addressing emotional contagion: we need to understand that emotions cannot be checked at the door and that employees, managers, and leaders alike need to be aware of how their emotions and habits are contagious. Use these tips to make your company’s culture worth catching!

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