Emotional Contagion and Employee Engagement

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The success behind most healthy organizational cultures may be attributed to the engagement levels of their employees. Companies whose employees’  values are personally aligned with the organization, report greater levels of positive engagement within and outside the company. Research shows that employee engagement is mediated and moderated by the kind of relationships that employees have with each other, and, with their supervisors and their subordinates, across all levels. To this end, most organizations channel substantial chunks of their budgets into team building, team maintenance and appraisal activities. The purpose of these ventures is to build and foster healthy, sustainable teams and groups, which will excel in their productivity, performance and cohesiveness. This is why it is imperative for all workforce personnel to know about Emotional contagion.

Emotional Contagion is the process by which emotions are transmitted from person to person using  visual cues such as body language, gestures and postures, and audio cues such as voice tone, pitch, and speed. Overwhelming evidence from across the entire animal kingdom suggests that this process might certainly be universal across species. While this process has undeniably been a part of human existence since the beginning of groups, it was formalized, described and studied by psychologist Elaine Hatfield, and her colleagues.  They describe emotional contagion as:Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 1.24.29 PM

It is different from Emotional Intelligence – a topic that has renewed interest and momentum in the industry. While emotional intelligence is a construct about understanding and inferring what other people are feeling, emotional contagion is the process in which these feelings are transmitted or “caught” from person to person. It is a process that is mostly unconscious; that is, it generally happens outside of a person’s attention. Usually, it is also an automatic process. Most of the time, the idea of “catching” or “throwing” emotions doesn’t even cross our minds! Emotional contagion is also not empathy. It is a necessary component of empathy, because in order to empathize with someone, we have to be able to understand how they feel. However, empathy also requires a conscious desire on our part, to want to help the other person. This means that even though emotional contagion is needed for empathy to happen, it is also possible to “catch” someone’s emotions and not want to help him or her.

Emotional Contagion: How it Works – Mimicry and Feedback

Emotional Contagion has been evolution’s preferred communication mechanism long before the invention of formal languages. This mechanism helps us gauge the emotional environment around us, so that we may respond appropriately. When we interact with another person, we try to assess his/her “mood” in order to understand his/her perspective. In the process of this assessment, mirror neurons in our brains very rapidly observe the other person’s body language, and try to mimic the behavior automatically. So, when we meet someone who has a beaming happy smile on his or her face, we usually respond with a reciprocating smile, often before we are even consciously aware that we did so! Our bodies respond first, before our brains have processed the information. In other words, the physiological response precedes cognitive awareness. Our physiological response is then used as feedback by our brains to interpret our action as a sign of “being happy” because a smile is usually an expression of happiness. Before we know it, we are happy too.

Emotional contagion facilitates social interactions, and helps promote interpersonal trust. It is also the process in which social norm transgressions are reconciled within groups. Learning about this process and being aware of it increases behavioral and attitudinal synchronization, cooperation and collaboration among team members. This makes it a crucial process to understand, especially for people who deal with other people as a part of their job responsibilities (a task that appears in the job descriptions of the majority of the workforce).

Emotional Contagion: What do we need to know and Why?

Emotional contagion is the reason good meetings and interactions can suddenly turn into sad or angry ones after seemingly simple and innocuous conversations with other people, why mass hysteria epidemics can wreak so much havoc, and in the modern online world, why typed words and messages can go viral at lightning speeds.  Emotional contagion also works differently in different people.  Some people might be better at “sending out” their own emotions rather than “catching” others’ emotions, and vice-versa. It is also possible for people to be very emotionally responsive to both their own and other people’s emotions. Normally this process is automatic, but, it is possible for us to train ourselves to become more aware of its impact on our interactions with others. Understanding emotional contagion and becoming aware of the transmission of moods between people, helps us facilitate our interactions in more authentic and meaningful ways. We are also able to glean more information from such interactions, which can then be used to make more accurate assessments of situations.

Multiple lines of research over the past few decades have identified certain “types” of people who, given the right conditions, are more susceptible to emotional contagion. That is, they are more likely to mimic other people’s behaviors and moods, and they are more likely to “catch” the other person’s emotions:

  • People who tend to see themselves in relation to others (instead of independently). These types of people are dependent on their membership and place in the group. These people show higher levels of facial and body language mimicry in their social interactions with others. They tend to mirror other people more, often quite unconsciously.
  • People whose attention is directed on to others, rather than inward onto themselves, are more susceptible to emotional contagion. People like this are more focused on other people’s gestures, postures and facial expressions, rather than their own. They follow the principle of giving everything their “100% attention”.
  • People who tend to mimic others’ behaviors are more susceptible to emotional contagion. Sometimes we tend to mimic other people unconsciously. For instance, when someone we are talking to touches their nose or clears it, we tend to mimic that behavior by touching our nose, often well before we become aware of it. Other times, we tend to mimic other people consciously. In these instances, we actively try to “put ourselves in the other person’s shoes”. In fact, when we become more aware of how emotional contagion works in us, we can then control this mimicry to our advantage.  Many salesmen (legitimate and con-artists) often use this to consciously mimic a potential buyers gestures and words, to establish rapport and solidify the sale.
  • People are more emotionally responsive or reactive are more susceptible to contagion. Some people are generally more emotionally expressive than others. For instance, generally speaking, women are more susceptible and are more sensitive to emotions. Whether it is because of our biology or because of the way we were raised in modern society, or because of a combination of both, we know that women are more emotionally attuned to their environments than men. More specifically within emotion groups, women are more susceptible to “catch” the feelings of love, sadness and joy from others, whereas men are more susceptible to catch anger. Men and women are equally susceptible to catch other people’s fear.

 

Ultimately, in order to truly engage a person into their immediate environments, we need to give them intrinsic, natural motivations which compel people to get involved and participate. The key to this engagement lies within emotions and the underlying subjective feelings they trigger in people. Understanding these emotions, learning how they work as triggers, and leveraging people’s susceptibility to emotions are the only ways for management teams and organizations to effectively manage their people and their cultures.