Emotional contagion and its influence on teams
In this article for the Tips for High-Impact Teamwork series, I would like to explore the influence of emotions on a team. Emotions have a significant impact on our energy level, motivation and job performance. Awareness of our emotions and the emotions of others as well as the management of those emotions can be particularly important to our teamwork.
We have known for quite some time that emotions are contagious. Referred to as emotional contagion (EC), research has shown that individuals interacting with one another are influenced by and influence each other’s emotions. The full range of emotions, from sadness and anger to happiness and excitement, have shown to be transferable between individuals and teams.
Though some may occasionally be able to recognize others’ emotional influence on themselves, EC frequently occurs without our awareness. What I find particularly interesting are theories about how EC spreads from one person to another. The primary theory relates to the fact that from an early age we mimic the nonverbal cues of others (Hatfield et al 1993). For example, we routinely mirror another person’s frowns and smiles. Most of the time we are completely unaware that we are manifesting this mirroring behavior. Then, in a counterintuitive process, research supports the theory that our outward physical postures and behaviors shape our inner mood and affect. Although we typically think of our inner life as driving our physical behaviors, the reverse process also appears to occur. And before we know it, our co-worker or colleague’s emotions have started to become our emotions.
Emotional contagion among several individuals can lead to emotional synchrony. This synchrony can be good for team bonding, but it can also lead to a more global sour mood or negative team mood. Barsade found that emotional contagion can have a ripple effect within a team that ultimately influences group or team behavior (Barsade 2002). In fact, Kozlowski and Ilgen showed that over time EC can undermine team cohesion and conflict (Kozlowski and Ilgen 2006). Thus, addressing negative moods among the team members is an important component of striving to become a high-impact team.
But how infectious is this contagion? The potential impact of EC is likely to be higher in closely knit teams with higher team cohesion and in teams that interact together for longer periods of time (Bartell and Saavedra 2000). Furthermore, given leaders’ influence on a team, their emotions can be particularly infectious as they shape the affective tone of the entire team (Sy et al 2005). Yet even the emotions of individual non-leaders on a team can have a significant impact. Barsade found evidence that a single non-leader can infect the mood of the entire team (Barsade 2002).
What is the potential impact of emotional contagion on the team? Using the term “contagion” connotes a predominantly negative impact, but that is not necessarily the case. Whereas some studies have shown negative emotions are more contagious than positive emotions, other studies have shown positive emotions are more contagious or that negative and positive emotions are equally contagious (Barsade 2018).
Certainly EC can have a very positive influence on team member satisfaction if the leader is consistently maintaining positive emotions and fostering a supportive environment with generous amounts of psychological safety. Given the current strain that we are all feeling during the pandemic, it seems likely that EC will have a detrimental effect on a team. Even though we are working more remotely now, there is some evidence to suggest that EC can be “caught” through non-verbal team interactions, including those in emails and texts (Cheshin et al 2011).
So, what can leaders and team members do to try to inoculate themselves to the deleterious consequences of EC? I think Barsade’s article at the start of the pandemic remains insightful and helpful almost two years later (Barsade 2020). First, try to demonstrate emotional intelligence by reflecting on your mood and the mood of others around you. As Schwartz pointed out, “you cannot change what you don’t notice” (Schwartz 2012). If you sense that you are experiencing a negative mood, you could discuss this with a trusted teammate. It is important to maintain authenticity and honesty with your team. Try to avoid burying your emotions by “putting on a good face.” On the other hand, if you find that the mood of a co-worker is impacting you, you could also try to limit your interactions with that teammate or at least take a break away from them for a short period of time, if possible. Staying calm and positive during these situations can have an impact on the emotions of your teammates.
If your exposure to negativity is persistent, then I believe it is important to discuss this with the teammate. Otherwise, the chronicity of the exposure could have a corrosive effect on you and other members of the team. How you approach this situation is incredibly important. Based on Schwarz’s mutual learning approach, I would encourage you to directly state your perspective, including how the teammate makes you feel, and then ask genuine questions from a place of curiosity and compassion in order to learn your teammate’s perspective. (To learn more about the mutual learning approach, I recommend Schwarz’s Strong Leaders, Stronger Teams, which is available as an e-book through the CWRU library system.) In this situation, you should avoid judgmental “you” comments and focus on sharing your perspective and how you feel through the use of “I” comments (Bourg Carter 2012). Though this can be a difficult conversation, the investment you are making in your team, your teammate, and yourself can have lasting dividends as together you strive to achieve higher impact.
If you would like to read more about emotional contagion, though it is now several years old, I recommend “Emotional Contagion in Organizational Life” (Barsade et al 2018).
- Barsade SG. The ripple effect: emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Admin Science Quarterly 2002;47:644-675.
- Barsade SG, Coutifaris CGV, Pillemer J. Emotional contagion in organizational life. Research in Org Behavior 2018;38:137-151.
- Barsade S. The contagion we can control. Harvard Bus Review. March 26, 2020.
- Bartel CA and Saavedra R. The collective construction of work group moods. Adm Sci Q 2000;45(2):197-231.
- Bourg Carter S. 5 ways to avoid catching a bad case of emotions: antidotes to contagious stress. Psychology Today. October 20, 2012.
- Cheshin A, Rafaeli A, Bos N. Anger and happiness in virtual teams. Org Behavior Human Decision Processes 2011;116:2-16.
- Hatfield E, Cacioppo JT and Rapson RL. Emotional Contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Science 1993;2(3):96-99.
- Kozlowski SWJ and Ilgen DR. Enhancing the effectiveness of work groups and teams. Psychol Sci Public Interest 2006;7:77-124.