Emotional Contagion – Improve Performance Through Emotions

Last week we discussed the role emotions play in decision making. This week we stay on our emotional bandwagon, or more accurately emotional contagion, as we look at the role emotions play in culture.

Sigal Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill’s HBR article Manage Your Emotional Culture, and Barsade’s Wharton article Balancing Emotional and Cognitive Culture highlight the importance of emotional culture versus the more commonly examined, cognitive culture which covers shared intellectual values, norms, artifacts and assumptions. Emotional culture relates to the shared affective values, essentially the collective feelings people feel and express at work. People are  innately skilled at understanding the feelings of others, in fact, as humans we are so good at picking up on other’s feelings that we often take on those feelings ourselves, often call emotional contagion.

The implications of emotional contagion for company culture are large. Emotions have been shown to affect critical outcomes like absenteeism and financial performance in addition to employee satisfaction. Since emotions can spread across a company, it is a necessity for leaders to understand the dominant emotions in their organization, and ideally take steps to guide those emotions in a positive direction. Barsade points out that collective emotions can be measured most accurately not by asking people about their own feelings, but by asking what emotions they perceive others in their organization to most commonly express. The bottom line is that the dominant emotions in your organization define your culture.

Culture is defined by the regular interactions between people in the company, and with people outside the company.  For example, little acts of kindness and support can add up to an emotional culture characterized by caring and compassion. Smiling versus frowning makes a difference – the manager who comes in with a sour look on their face most days likely has a team that wouldn’t put joy at the top of their work emotions. 

We have worked with leaders who claim values like customer satisfaction, integrity, and ingenuity, but because of their emotional outbursts driven by frustration or anger, the real emotions in the companies were fear  and isolation. One instance was an in-out leader; you were either in or out and it was not easy to know what to do to be in. If you were out, you were belittled with emotional rants and forced out of the organization. Those who remained bore witness to the poor treatment and never really knew who would be next on the out list. Fear reigned, even if it was hidden from plain view – the company no longer exists.

Leaders can’t be the culture, but they can play a significant role in developing it through consistent positive interactions that support the emotional culture they want for their organization. They can also be deliberate in putting procedures and habits in place that support the culture. In their article, Barsade and O’Neill highlight Vail Resorts as a company focused on fun. The company notices and rewards its employees when they bring fun into working with their peers and their customers. This happens daily, and at review time, because fun is also in their performance management program.

Complete cultural alignment requires collaboration with the entire team since it is their personal feelings that determine if a policy or procedure is aligning with the company’s emotional culture. For this you need authentic feedback and discussions. It is important to create a psychologically safe environment where people can openly express their authentic ideas and their feelings. When all of this is in place you can build your culture over time by setting a clear goal (what emotions do you want to define your organization), involving the full team, measuring your progress, and adjusting. If this sounds like a lot of work, it is, but the outcome will be significant. 

Culture can be a lasting competitive advantage if you get it right, or it can be the anchor that drags your organization into obsolescence. The choice is yours.