Transforming Talk at Work | August 2015


Dear Reader,

Unbeknownst to “Charlie,” a manager in a large financial organization, his direct reports would have a secret meeting every morning just after he arrived at the office – to discuss nothing other than Charlie’s mood.

After a few of them had initial interactions with him first thing in the morning, the team would gather quickly to discuss Charlie’s disposition. Most often he was irritable and demanding. His staff would rally their support for one another and vow to be available when his inevitable outbursts came. The team knew all too well that, left unchecked, Charlie’s bad mood would make for a universally miserable day for all of them.

Charlie apparently had not idea of how much his emotions were visible to others. Nor did he understand that they were, in fact, contagious.
Those who study the phenomenon call this “emotional contagion,” noting that much like contagious diseases, our emotions tend to rub off on others and impact their moods.

Research on emotional contagion plots mood on two continua – valence and intensity. Valence is whether the mood is positive or negative. Intensity is the degree to which the mood is outwardly visible and receptive by others.

Depression, for example, has a negative valence and low intensity (meaning people are not likely to become depressed from hanging around someone who is depressed). Anger, which also has a negative valence and has a high intensity so it is more likely to rub off or be contagious to those who are around others who are angry. They will be more likely to become irritable and impatient, not unlike Charlie.

Emotional contagion hit the headlines last year when a study of Facebook’s intentional manipulation of Facebook users’ moods had been conducted in the name of research in 2012. That story, undoubtedly cast a shadow on the concept.

Emotional contagion exists whether we like it or not. I don’t think the question is “is it ethical or right to manipulate other’s moods?” The fact is, we do. The question instead becomes “how can we impact one another’s moods for the greater good?” That greater good may be in our communities, in our families and in the workplace.

And, as the research shows (see articles below), in the workplace, a “good mood” or “happiness” may not be the most strategic mood to set loose in the workplace.

The next time you think you are checking your mood at the door when you come into work, think again. Yes, your mood is showing.


Reverse Engineer: Emotional Contagion On Purpose

1. Survey your tasks and your team’s tasks. What are the highest priorities for today?
2. Determine what mood or emotional state would best support the accomplishment of those key tasks. Happiness . . . if customer satisfaction is the order of the day. Anticipation may be the key ingredient as you watch a new product or ad campaign’s launch. Indignation might be more appropriate if your key competitor has just pulled ahead in the marketplace and you want your spot back.
3. Find an authentic way to experience that emotion yourself.Connecting deeply with the key tasks of the day (step 2) ought to do the trick. If it doesn’t, recall previous circumstance with strong similarities: a previous focus on customer service, a product launch or a competitor’s rally.
4. Set an intention to live from that emotional state as you engage in the tasks and communication related to them.


Digest This: Emotional Contagion in the Workplace

Hostility Spreads Like a Contagion at Work (New York Magazine)
Summarizing an article from the Journal of Applied Psychology, the author describes the negative emotional contagion that occurred in a workplace simulation. In the study, participants interacted with a one partner and then went on to complete a different task with someone else. In the experiment’s design, some participants were partnered with a particularly nasty person first. Those whose partner was a jerk had a much greater tendency to pass the bad vibes on to their partner for the next task.

Faster Than a Speeding Text: Emotional Contagion at Work (Psychology Today)
The author of a study on contagious emotions in the workplace warns that a manager’s mood can go “viral” much like a YouTube video or a group text message. Participants in the study verifiably spread their good mood to others without realizing they were doing so. In addition, cooperation went up, as did participants’ good feelings about the work they were doing and the work of others. The implications for collaboration are nothing short of positive!

The Research We’ve Ignored About Happiness at Work (Harvard Business Review)
After a motivational seminar at work that required dancing wildly in front of one’s coworkers, the authors examined the research behind happiness at work. Turns out it’s not always an asset to be happy at work and this article shares the why and when it is more beneficial to be unhappy at work.


My Treat: What do Millennials, fitness trainers and fallen trees have in common?

They’ve all appeared in my blog in recent weeks. Haven’t checked out the blog lately? Take a look – and send me ideas for future posts. What do you want to hear about?

The Working Conversations website has a full makeover. Check it out and let me know what you think.


Until next time,

Janel Anderson, PhD
Workplace Communication Expert and CEO of Working Conversations

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