Managing mood contagion

Mood affects the culture of an organisation

A positive work culture is what differentiates high- performance organisations from less successful ones. The formula is quite exact. The emotional style of leader’s accounts for between 50 to 70% of an organisations work culture (how people feel about working for a company) which in turn accounts for 20 to 30% of the organisation performance.

‘When my mind is full of anger, other people catch it like the flu.’ – Daniel Goleman

Most people have been on both ends of this statement, they have been the one who was angry and in turn affected the moods of the people around them, and they have also been the one who’s mood changed as a result of interacting with someone else.  This is called Emotional Contagion. This happens every time you interact with other people, it doesn’t matter whether this is with a group, one other person or an organisation. Our minds react to the emotions of the people around us because we all have a Social Brain.

How does a group of people catch the angry mood of a leader? When you are focused on someone else your brain picks up on signals and processes them through the ‘low road’ of the emotional part of your brain. Emotional contagion runs through this part of the brain allowing for an automatic ‘neural mimicking’ of other people’s feelings. Generally, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that adjusts our emotions, this enables us to continue thinking and be present even though we are upset by another person’s emotions.

Emotional contagion happens all the time, at work is no exception, but who is the person who sends the emotions? When there is a group of people, the member of the group who is the most emotionally expressive is the sender. In circumstances where there are power differences in the group, the most powerful member sends emotions and sets the emotional tone for the group. If the team leader is in a good mood, everyone picks up on it and as a result their performance is improved, if however, the leader is in a negative mood, group performance suffers as a result. It is also important to note that people remember the negative interactions with their bosses more than the positive.

If you are a leader, how can this information help you? First of all, you must be aware of your own emotions. Self-awareness is a hugely important aspect of emotional intelligence, another is self-regulation. Leaders who have mastered these skills can learn how to choose their mood. Sigal Barsade is a researcher at Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She specialises in emotional contagion and the impact it has in organisations. She has suggested a number of ways that leaders can manage their emotions and as a result can create a positive emotional culture within their teams. She states is that you need to be aware of your moods and if it is not useful, change it! One way you can do this is by changing your facial expression, the facial feedback hypothesis states that our facial expressions have an impact on our emotions, for example by intentionally smiling you will begin to feel more positive emotions.

Moods are highly contagious

When you are a leader, your team take their cues from you and as a result your mood is hugely important as it has a direct impact on performance, both good and bad. Our moods transfer to the people we come in contact with and they can have just as strong an effect on them as they do on you. You don’t even have to know somebody personally for their mood to affect you. By simply listening to somebody speaking in sad/cheerful tone of voice can put you in same mood as person speaking. How is this possible? The answer is as a result of the mirror neurones in our brain. When we see somebody in for example, a happy mood, the same neurons start to fire in our brains as are firing in theirs. It is a primitive form of empathy (immediate and instinctive reading of another person’s thoughts, feelings etc), and it explains how we ‘pick up’ others’ moods so easily. The closer and more important the relationship the more powerful the contagion.

Emotional contagion in groups and at work

Emotional contagion is very common among co-workers in the same department or team, at meetings, etc. The ability of a team to feel ‘as one’ is incredibly important for the success of the team, perhaps even more important than skill. For example, a wave of positivity or determination, working its way contagiously through a team lights a fire that will help them achieve their goals. Similarly, a wave of defeatism can spread through a team at a rapid pace. The more emotionally connected a group is, the stronger the contagion. The more group members depend on each other to get the work done and for support, and the longer they have worked together, the more contagion there is.

Mood at work counts not just to employees, but to productivity. When employees are in a positive mood at work, they tend to be more cooperative, generous with their time and expertise and more attentive. There also tends to be less absenteeism and staff turnover. When however, there is a negative mood throughout the group, the performance of the whole team can be affected.

When the leader is in a positive mood everybody is more optimistic about getting things done, the team is better at absorbing and understanding information and are more creative and flexible and more effective decision-makers. Maureen Gaffney outlines a number of steps on how to better manage your mood.

How to manage your mood

  1. Overall principle – learn to reduce how often you have negative moods and increase the frequency of your positive moods.
  2. Learn to savour your positive moods. – When in a positive mood, don’t try to analyse why this is the case and why it can’t be like this all the time. Savour the moment.
  3. Try occasionally looking at or listening to something as if it is the first time or the last time I will ever see or hear it. You may see something in a new light
  4. Occasionally negative moods are necessary and useful. If you’ve had a recent loss or set-back, it is ok and even useful to feel down. However, you do have to actively manage the intensity and duration of the mood so that it does not become counter-productive.
  5. Become aware of your mood so you can take its effects into account. For example, use positive moods to get things done, particularly the more difficult tasks. When you are in a negative mood, do the opposite. Try to put off difficult tasks, including those that involve other people. Your negative mood will make you more likely to misread neutral responses from other people as negative and will then cause you to over-react. Your mood will also affect the other person, making the whole exchange more tense.
  6. If you are aware that you are in a bad mood, you can actually decrease the effects it has on your behaviour and you will be likely to act out your mood.
  7. If you are facing a difficult situation whilst you are in a negative mood, you should try and take a few minutes to make a mental list of all the things you have going for you. Think back to the last time you handled a situation like this and you handled it well. Think about what you did to make it a success? Make a habit of asking ‘What is still going right in the situation?
  8. Learn the habit of being grateful – Be thankful regardless of your life circumstances. It’s easy to be grateful when the going is good and you are in a positive mood, it is when things are going bad and you are in a negative mood that gratitude is most important. When you develop a habit of gratitude and you notice other’s generosity, you are more inclined to reciprocate.
  9. Use distractions. Distract yourself for a couple of minutes by doing    something positive. This is incredibly effective in breaking a cycle of worrying and rumination
  10. Plan! – Planning a new exercise regime or setting a date to meet your friends will immediately boost your mood.
  11. Make a list – They give you a sense of control. complete something on the list immediately, particularly some job that you have been putting off for a while
  12. Keep in mind you can’t be driven crazy without your full cooperation. We always have some choice to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. But we often hide from ourselves the actual choices we are making. That is at the core of the self-defeating behaviour that often triggers very negative moods.
  13. Occasionally, you will not be able to change your bad mood. You may be trying too hard. Better to ask yourself ‘In what way can I help myself function better while I am feeling like this?

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Gaffney, M. (2018) Managing Your Mood [Online] https://www.rte.ie/radio1/marian-finucane/features/2012/0915/351652-maureen-gaffney-moods/

Goleman, D. (2016) glad-mad-sad-teams-catch-a-leaders-mood [Online] http://www.danielgoleman.info/glad-mad-sad-teams-catch-a-leaders-mood/