See if you can watch this popular video clip without feeling good. It’s almost impossible not to be influenced by the joyful emotions we are witnessing. Brain scientists have proven what we have sensed intuitively: that emotions are contagious. They infect not only individuals but entire groups.
While both positive and negative emotions are contagious, negative ones spread even faster than positive ones. This has important implications for both our personal and organizational well-being.
One of the researchers in this area is Dr. Sigal Barsade of the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania. She states that if people ‘catch’ each other’s emotions, then this can “influence their decisions accordingly.” This can be problematic, however, if people are not aware that the mood they are in, or the subsequent actions, originated from someone else’s emotions.
Nowhere is this potentially more detrimental than in a work team because unwarranted anxiety or worry, started by one or two individuals, can have a ripple effect on the entire team and influence their collective behavior.The same can be said of the negative disposition of one person in a team which can spread like a virus. We have all experienced how one malcontent person can dampen the spirit of everyone else in the group.
While developing total immunity against emotional contagion is achieved by monks in Tibet, here are some things the rest of us can do to short-circuit its potentially disruptive effect on ourselves and others in our environment:
1. If you are a leader, consider that managing your moods is one of your chief responsibilities. You are a “walking mood inductor” and your subordinates are “receptors.”Your mood impacts how they feel, and, consequently, how they perform. Take a page from Charles M. Schwab who said: “I consider my ability to arouse enthusiasm among men the greatest asset I possess, and the way to develop the best that is in a man is by appreciation and encouragement.”
2. Set a positive mood in a meeting. Meetings can be cauldrons of emotion—the mood in the meeting can have an impact on what does or doesn’t get discussed, and on how it is discussed, and consequently, on what is accomplished. If you are a leader, you control the dimmer switch of performance. People are continually watching you for cues on which way the wind is blowing.
3. Create a Stop Doing List. I borrowed this from Jim Collins’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t. Jim’s Stop Doing List is useful in minimizing stress that affects our mood. Those who built companies that went from ‘good to great’ displayed a remarkable discipline “to unplug all sorts of extraneous junk.”
4. Raise your awareness of your moods. Self-awareness precedes self-management. Researchers tell us that recognizing emotions and acknowledging their cause can be one way to avoid spreading emotional contagion. Stop yourself in your tracks and ask yourself: Am I being excessively negative or judgmental? Am I being impatient with others? Is my tone dismissive?
If, on some occasions, it is particularly difficult to snap out of a bad mood, just be upfront: “I am not in a good mood right now; can we meet this afternoon?” Most people appreciate the raw honesty of this statement. Going into self-imposed quarantine for an hour or two is not only a graceful thing to do, but it is also an emotionally-intelligent choice.
5. Eliminate your energy drainers. Are these among the offenders that may cause you stress: internalizing others’ criticism, fragmented boundaries, power struggles, unprotected personal time, useless networking, and continuous one-way favors? What can you do to address these and other drainers? What can you eliminate to make room for what energizes you and keeps you focused on what matters?
6. Focus on what you do best. We are prone to stress and perpetual bad moods when we are fragmented in our approach. If business strategy is a cause of your stress, consider reading Profit from the Core: A Return to Growth in Turbulent Times by Chris Zook et al. The book shows you how focusing on your core business—that which you do best—is the most efficient way to bring about long-term growth and profit.
By refocusing on what you do best, the authors advise, it will also be easier to spot inefficiencies that drain your business. The same applies to our personal life: if we don’t narrow down our activities to a fundamental core from which we can grow, setting meaningful goals becomes much harder.
7. Be skeptical of self-evaluations when you are not in a good mood. Charles Horton Cooley shared these words of wisdom: “One should never criticize his own work except in a fresh and hopeful mood.” We lose our objectivity when we view things through the dark prism of a bad mood.
8. Be aware of the P/N ratio. This measures the instance of positive incidents (e.g. “This was a brilliant idea”) vs. negative incidents (e.g. “I am disappointed with the quality of your report.”)Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and mathematician Marcial Losada discovered that teams that have a positivity ratio greater than 3:1 were much more productive than teams that had a lower positivity ratio. (There is also an upper P/N ratio limit of 13:1 at which point performance worsens as the ratio of positive to negative is then perceived as too Pollyannaish.)
Fredrickson’s and Losada’s work builds on the research of John Gottman, a psychologist, who had earlier discovered the “magic ratio” of 5:1 essential for successful marriages. He was able to predict with 94% accuracy the couples that would end up divorcing.You can test your own positivity ratio by taking the free positivity ratio test here.
9. Be mindful of the connection between a good mood and creativity. Adam Anderson, of the University of Toronto researched the effect of moods on creativity and found that a good mood enhances our ability to think laterally. “You can actually put people into a more creative mindset by putting them in a positive mood.”
Consider this the next time you go into a brainstorming session. If you are not in a good mood, try the advice from mood experts: for example, listening to upbeat music; it takes milliseconds for music to affect our mood. Or spend a few moments to reflect on things that you appreciate in your life.
10. Be vigilant of emotional contagion of front line employees who interface with customers. Studies have shown that emotional contagion between customers and employees influence the customer’s attitude towards product and intention to repurchase. To generate positive customer emotions, employees must create and display genuine positive emotions themselves.
11. Re-evaluate your email before hitting the send button. This oft-heard advice bears repeating. Bad moods can be transmitted as loud and clear electronically as they are face to face. Just as we can’t unring a bell, we cannot retrieve a hastily sent email that will be a permanent, digital reminder of your bad mood.
12. Don’t let others contaminate you with their moods. Someone once said: “Moods should be heard but never danced to.”While this is not a cake walk, it is not impossible either. It takes self-determination and strength of will to resolve to maintain your emotional freedom no matter what is going on around you.
Emotions are often described as “energy in motion.” Audit your moods and ask yourself if you generate positive energy for those around you. If not, resolve to change this. Your mood, whether positive or negative, can linger long after you leave a room. And the mood generated is directly related to how you made people feel. Maya Angelou said it right: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Bruna Martinuzzi is a facilitator, author, speaker and founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., a global company specializing in emotional intelligence, leadership and presentation skills training. Her latest book is The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.