What’s your impact - connection or contagion? - Michelle Gibbings

We all know that viruses are contagious, but what you may not know is that emotions are contagious too.  Yes, there is such a thing as emotional contagion.

If someone around you is happy, sad, angry or any other emotion, it can rub off and impact how you feel and behave; and you can have the same impact on them.

Associate Professor from the School of Psychology at the University of Reading, Bhismadev Chakrabarti defines emotional contagion as “a set of processes which enable us to catch another person’s emotion. Most of these processes are largely automatic … for me to experience being sad with you, I don’t need to explicitly know or work out the reasons why that is”.

Our ability to feel another person’s emotions is an essential part of being human.  It underpins how we connect with others as we can see a person’s emotional expressions and reactions, and we respond in turn to that.

Humans tend to mimic and synchronise facial expressions, words and body language with the people they are talking with, and this can occur very quickly.  Indeed, so fast it can happen without us realising we’re doing it.

Researchers from the University of Hawaii, Elaine Hatfield and colleagues, suggest that people are capable of mimicking other people’s facial, vocal, and postural expressions with “stunning rapidity”.  In doing this, we can feel ourselves into another person’s emotions.  However, because we are usually unaware we can do this, as the researchers note we are consequently oblivious to the important role that mimicry plays in social encounters.

You can see this play out both in your personal life, and the work environment; with particular consequences for leaders.

For example, when leaders mistreat their direct reports, this behaviour is often passed down the line. In a joint study, conducted by Vanderbilt University, Cornell University and the University of Illinois, of 1527 full-time employees at 94 hotels across the United States and Canada, researchers found a positive correlation between middle managers’ satisfaction with their senior managers and the line employees’ satisfaction with their middle managers. It’s a trickle-down effect. When senior leaders mistreat their direct reports, this dysfunction cascades through the organisation.

So how does this impact you?

There are two parts to this question.  Firstly, to what extent do you absorb the emotions of others, and secondly, how do your emotions impact others.

Some people are more vulnerable to emotional contagion than other people, and this can be measured.  The Emotional Contagion Scale measures a person’s susceptibility to ‘catching’ the emotions of others.  It does this by examining a person’s tendency to mimic feelings of sadness, fear, anger, happiness and love.

Being able to feel and see emotions in other people is a strength, so you don’t want to lose this capability.  Without it, you’ll struggle to connect and care for those around you. However, it is essential to recognise when another person’s feelings are dragging you down in a way that isn’t helpful.

Ask yourself:

  • How easily do I let other people, and how they feel, affect how I feel?
  • When this happens, am I aware of the impact (and whether the effect is positive or negative)?
  • Are there people in my network who’s emotional energy is draining and depleting? If so, how can I shield myself from that impact?
  • Are there actions I can make to manage emotional contagion better?

Just as people impact you, you do the same for others.  So, consider the impact your emotions are having on those around you, and whether they are helpful, hurtful or harmful.

Ask yourself:

  • What types of emotions do I give off?
  • Is my emotional energy impacting others in a way that is typically positive or negative?
  • When I am feeling sad, frustrated or angry, do I let that impact how I treat people?
  • How can I use my emotional energy in a way to build and sustain healthy connections?

In today’s world, we need each other, more than ever.  Going alone isn’t an option. At the same time, it can be exhausting and debilitating when you aren’t aware of how the emotions around you are impacting you.

Take some time each day to pause, reflect and wonder about how you are feeling.  Dig into where those feelings are coming from, and then you can decide what you want to do next.

As Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote:

“Emotion goes inside-out. Emotional contagion, though, suggests that the opposite is also true. If I can make you smile, I can make you happy. If I can make you frown, I can make you sad. Emotion, in this sense, goes outside-in”.


Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is bringing back the happy to workplace culture. The author of three books, and a global keynote speaker, she’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated. 

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