Stefanie Johnson is an assistant professor of Management, specializing in leadership research
Emotional Contamination in the Workplace
Recent research suggests that managers’ moods and emotions can have powerful effects on their employees’ moods, emotions and attitudes, ultimately affecting performance. Both laboratory and field studies conducted at University of Colorado Denver’s Business School, revealed that employees “catch” their managers’ moods and emotions through a process called emotional contagion. Humans have an innate tendency to mimic the nonverbal behaviors, vocalizations, and posture of those around them. Copying another person’s behavior can result in one experiencing the emotion that he or she is mimicking. The CU Denver business studies demonstrated this phenomenon in a variety of settings. Managers’ moods, whether they are good or bad, affect employees’ moods and morale at work.
Although employees can catch the emotions of coworkers, customers, or subordinates, the studies suggest that employees are particularly likely to catch their manager’s emotions because of the manager’s status in the organization. We tend to pay particularly close attention to the moods and emotions of our managers because managers have control over organizational resources. Therefore, it can be beneficial to know how one’s manager is feeling. Moreover, we are likely to pay closer attention to what our manager is saying because it is often relevant to our work. That added attention makes emotional contagion more likely to occur.
However, the research also demonstrated that some people are particularly likely to catch others’ emotions. Individuals who pay closer attention to others’ emotional expressions and are better able to read those expressions, may feel that they are more similar to others, and tend to mimic facial, vocal, and postural expressions are individuals who are more susceptible to emotional contagion. People’s genetics, gender, early experiences, and personality also contribute to these tendencies.
Moreover, the change in mood and emotions that occurs through emotional contagion influences employees’ attitudes, morale and performance. More specifically, when employees caught a positive mood from their manager, they had a more positive attitude about their manager and performed better at work. The opposite was true when they caught a negative mood from their manager. Simply said, people in a good mood tend have more positive attitudes and tend to work harder than people in a bad mood.
However, the studies also suggest that many people are not aware of the change in their emotions after emotional contagion has occurred, because emotional contagion occurs in an automatic and unconscious fashion. Such moods, described as unconscious moods, are particularly likely to affect our attitudes and performance because we do not know that they are there. Imagine that Angie is under a lot of pressure at work one day when a coworker, Joe, asks her to sit in on an interview with a job applicant. Angie explains to Joe that she is really stressed out and in a bad mood today so she might not be the best interviewer. Joe asks her to join anyway, but suggests that he do all of the talking. When asked later what she thought of the prospective employee, Angie replies that she was not impressed with the applicant but that it might be because she had a lot on her mind. In this example, Angie is using information about her mood to help her make sense of her attitudes and potential performance. When we do not recognize our feelings, however, we cannot correct for the potential impact that our feelings have on such outcomes. If Angie were not aware of her bad mood, she might have done a bad job interviewing the applicant and attributed the negative feelings to the applicant, making her believe that she did not like the applicant.
Finally, the research suggests that managers’ moods impact other outcomes, in addition to employees’ moods. Managers who express more positive moods and emotions are perceived to be more charismatic than those who express negative moods and emotions. Further, the studies demonstrated at the top level leaders’ moods at work impact employee turnover, such that happier leaders have lower turnover in the organizations than less happy leaders. For many people, having trouble with their manager is a reason to leave their organization. Interestingly, the opposite is true as well. Having a manager who is happy at work tends to make people want to stay with their organization. Therefore the implication of this research for managers is to work to experience, or at least express, positive moods and emotions at work. The implication for employees is to be aware of their manager’s moods and try to avoid catching the bad ones.