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Emotional and social contagion: Three ways it impacts your organisational culture

Subconscious behaviours create a ripple effect when we are around others.

Take this familiar scenario. When we are around people who are negative and constantly complaining, we feel tired and drained. You might even call them emotional vampires. The flip side is that when we surround ourselves with positive, upbeat people, we feel energised. It’s no wonder that on some days we are more exhausted than we should be, for no other reason other than the company we’ve kept.

When this happens, we are experiencing emotional contagion, which is defined as the transfer of moods. So…how we project emotions not only affect people around us; it also impacts your organisational culture. Here’s how:

1. Emotions can be contagious: Studies have shown that emotions like happiness, sadness, and anger can spread from person to person, sometimes even without direct contact. For example, if someone in a group is expressing happiness, it can increase the likelihood of others in the group also feeling happy. Similarly, if someone is expressing anger, it can increase the likelihood of others feeling angry or upset as well. Your mood affects others. Mind your own emotional footprint! 2. Social norms and behaviors can also be contagious: In addition to emotions, behaviours and social norms are powerful in influencing behaviour. This can include things like smoking, drinking, or even breaking rules. We are hardwired to ‘mirror’ the behaviours of the group (or tribe) to gain social acceptance, often at a subconscious level. Mirroring is a psychological term to describe the behaviour of subconsciously imitating the characteristics of those around us. You could say – we are designed to align! This is why it’s critical that leaders model the desired behaviours in an organisation.

3. Emotional and social contagion can have both positive and negative effects: While emotional and social contagion can lead to negative outcomes, such as the spread of anxiety or fear, it can also have positive effects. For example, expressing gratitude or kindness can spread to others and create a positive feedback loop. It works and spreads both ways!

When we consider the role psychological safety plays in productivity, employee morale and in building a culture of experimentation and innovation, we can appreciate the importance of our ‘emotional footprint’, positive or negative, in shaping the organisational culture.

Emotional and social contagion spreads, often without conscious awareness. Being mindful about it helps us understand the scope of impact one person’s behavioural patterns has on the people around them, and the broader group.

Be the person that leaves people energised, not drained!


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