A colleague recently described going into a hospital unit and knowing within minutes that it was a toxic work environment. She came to this conclusion before anyone had spoken to her. It was like there was something in the air, she said.
A driving force in team culture is emotional contagion: the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person, and, consequently, to converge emotionally. People pick up the emotional tone of those around them. The process does not require ESP. It only requires that they observe one another because so much of emotional experience is reflected in behavior. For example, anxiety is obvious when someone is fidgeting or pacing around a room. Most people can figure out emotions from much more subtle actions, expressions, or posture. People tend to mimic or mirror the emotionally loaded signals from the people around them. The process occurs outside of awareness for the most part. It’s an inherent part of being social creatures. It has an implicit assumption that if you are out of sync with everyone around you, you likely don’t know what’s really going on.
When people are generally resilient and happy, emotional contagion is an asset. It sets a tone that encourages others to share the joy. Emotional contagion becomes problematic in an uncivil workplace. As my colleague noted, people can pick up the emotional tone of a workgroup after a short time of sharing the space with them.
It’s useful to remember that emotional contagion does not happen by magic or even by ESP. People have developed a refined sensitivity to interpreting subtle cues. The ability to figure out if you’re welcomed or despised helps your chances for survival. Usually people pick up these cues with being consciously aware of how they conclude whether they are in a friendly or unfriendly group.
One practical point about emotional contagion is that people can become more aware of the cues that set the tone of a workgroup. When in a group that has a distinct emotional tone, you can reflect on the words, expressions, or behaviors that convey that tone. By sharpening your awareness of these cues, you can increase your awareness of a group’s dynamics.
A second practical point is that you can increase your awareness of your contribution to the emotional tone of a group. Your expressions, words, and behavior are part of the mix when you work with a strategy such as CREW to improve the civility or morale of a workgroup. People have a limited capacity to consciously manipulate these cues, but they can become a useful focus of conversation. By reflecting on the subtle cues that define a workgroup’s tone, a group takes a step towards determining its future.