Workplace Culture

The Power of Emotional Contagion at Work

This week I have been thinking about the influence workplaces can have on our emotions. Our environment influences how we feel, which, in turn, affects how motivated we are to tackle the challenges of our work. Just as you can pick up accents or vocal quirks from being around certain people, you can also pick up others’ emotions.

What Is Emotional Contagion?

Emotions rapidly spread from one or more people to those around them, and Social Psychologist Elaine Hatfield calls this phenomenon emotional contagion. Emotional contagion explains why being around highly motivated people is inspiring, and why being around downers is exhausting. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we are affected by the emotions of the people around us.

In a recent workshop I was facilitating, a participant told me that he had a feeling of dread each morning about 20 seconds after his alarm rang. The feeling would arrive just as he realized that beginning another day meant having to go to work. At his workplace, conversations among coworkers were frowned upon, and the manager of his department was quick to curtail any fun at work. As a result, he would hole up in his office and avoid contact with his colleagues. He explained that his coworkers were also on their guard, trying to keep to themselves in order to evade the vigilant and critical gaze of their manager.

Rather than supporting and encouraging good work, the participant’s manager did the opposite. He went on to tell me that, at the end of the day, he went home exhausted and in need of time to decompress. Sadly, he explained that his partner also felt the effects of his horrible workplace culture when he came home tired and emotionally drained – the negative emotions he felt at work were transferring well beyond the workplace. This is a sad story, but it illustrates a crucial point: emotions, whether they are negative or positive, have a ripple effect.

We all have the power to positively influence others through the power of emotional contagion.

This past Monday morning, I walked into the office and felt, well, happy. There was a buzz as I walked in. Lori was emptying the dishwasher and Cindy was making herself a cup of coffee in our open area kitchen. Although I really didn’t need another cup of coffee, I decided that this morning was a good one to have a second cup and join the conversation for a few minutes. Content and energized – and not just from the extra caffeine – I began eagerly anticipating what the day would bring.

Our office is not perfect, but we are intentional about creating a healthy workplace culture that I feel every day when I walk in the door. While I am lucky to have a great work environment, my work as a consultant has shown me the significant and far-reaching effects of both positive and negative workplace environments.

Whether we are catching or passing along emotions, we all play a part in curating our environments for either the good or the bad. Here are two ways you can guard against passing along negative emotions and positively influence your workplace culture:

Be aware.

The most important way to mitigate the effects of our negative emotions is simply by knowing that we are influencing others. The awareness that our emotions have the potential to positively or negatively affect those around us should make us step back and evaluate the emotions we are bringing to work with us each day.

Take responsibility.

After awareness comes taking responsibility for the actions and attitudes we bring to the workplace. If we recognize our own negative emotional state, we should give ourselves some mental space, work to calm ourselves, and even avoid certain situations until we are able to respond in a manner that is helpful, kind, and positive. Conversely, if we are in a good mood, we shouldn’t be afraid to smile more, speak about what is making us happy, and pass on the good emotions.

We are social creatures – both at home and in our workplaces – and we have the power to change our social circles for the better through the power of emotional contagion.

For more free resources, visit our resources page.


Wendy Loewen

Managing Director , ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

Wendy is co-author of ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work. This book is available on our website.

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