Emotional Contagion – When Feelings Go Viral

emotional contagionAre you aware of the extent that your emotions may affect others? Your verbal and face-to-face cues are surprisingly influential in determining the feelings of those who are listening and observing. This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion. It is recognized by behavioral psychologists as a kind of interpersonal influence.

Studies reveal that emotions (either positive or negative) spread among group members like viruses. Emotional contagion often occurs at a subconscious level. In other words, people are unaware that their emotions may have been affected by another person’s mood with whom they are in close contact.

But it goes even deeper than a transfer of emotions. Research by Sigal Barsade has demonstrated that when emotional contagion takes place, the judgment and quality of group decisions are also impacted. Let’s review a study that shows how the emotions of a single person can significantly impact an entire group’s performance.

Business school students were divided into small groups for a simulated management exercise. Each had to role-play a department head advocating for an employee to get a merit-based increase. At the same time, all the students were part of a “salary committee” negotiating how best to allocate a limited amount of bonus money. In essence, they had to balance getting the most for their own candidate, while maximizing the overall benefit to the company. Each group was also seeded with a confederate (an actor) who was trained to convey one of four different mood conditions:

• cheerful enthusiasm
• serene warmth
• hostile irritability
• depressed sluggishness

The researchers were able to identify several effects of emotional contagion. Groups in which the confederate had “spread” positive emotion experienced an increase in positive mood. But the emotional contagion was not limited to a spread of feelings. These groups also displayed more cooperation, less interpersonal conflict, and believed that they had performed better on their task than groups in which negative emotions were spread by the confederate. In addition, groups in which people felt positive emotions made decisions that allocated the available bonus money more equitably.

When the participants were asked why they allocated the funds the way they did, and why they thought their group performed the way it did, they pointed to factors such as their ability to negotiate, or the attributes of the “candidates” they had been assigned. They were completely blind to the fact that their behavior and decisions (and that of their group) had been influenced by the displayed emotion of the confederate.

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How confirmation bias contributes to a culture of compliance

License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0. Attribution: Nick Youngson

Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs1. This biased approach to decision-making is largely unintentional and often results in ignoring inconsistent information. Existing beliefs can include one’s expectations in a given situation and predictions about a particular outcome. People are especially likely to process information to support their own beliefs when the issue is highly important or self-relevant.

In a previous article, I outlined the differences between two distinct cultures – compliance and commitment.  This post describes how a confirmation bias can perpetuate a culture of compliance.  I will also discuss how the conversations that take place in a work place with a culture of commitment minimize the potential for confirmation bias.

Culture of Compliance

The model below explains how confirmation bias influences decision-making (and the actions taken by managers) when an organization is managed through compliance.

Confirmation bias - Compliance

It begins with a person’s existing beliefs.

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Your dangerous wandering distracted mind

wandering mindDistractions are everywhere in our world.  We can be distracted while driving, while working, or while doing any number of routine tasks. In the work place, incident investigations reveal that tens of thousands of injuries each year occur when people are not focused on the task at hand.

Most everyone recognizes the dangers associated with being distracted while driving a motor vehicle.  Distracted driving is a leading contributor to automobile crashes.  For example, here are just a few statistics from an organization dedicated to stopping texting and driving injuries and deaths:

  • Every year, about 421,000 people are injured in crashes that have involved a driver who was distracted in some way.
  • Each year, over 330,000 accidents caused by texting while driving lead to severe injuries. This means that over 78% of all distracted drivers are distracted because they have been texting while driving.
  • 1 out of 4 car accidents in the US are caused by texting while driving.
  • Texting and driving is 6 times more likely to get you in an accident than drunk driving.
  • It takes an average of three seconds after a driver’s mind is taken off the road for any road accident to occur.
  • Reading a text message while driving distracts a driver for a minimum of five seconds each time.
  • The chances of a crash are increased by 23 times when you are texting.

Error Rate and Distraction

A recent Michigan State University study provides supporting evidence that being distracted significantly increases human error (which can result in an accident).

Participants in this study were asked to perform a series of tasks in order, such as identifying with a keystroke whether a letter was closer to the beginning or end of the alphabet. Of course, a certain number of errors were made even without interruptions.

Occasionally the participants were told to input two unrelated letters — which took about 3 seconds — before returning to their task. These slight interruptions led to participants making twice as many mistakes when they returned to their sequencing task.

In addition, there are a number of studies and/or exercises which prove that humans cannot consciously complete more than one task at a time.  Indeed, one author has labeled the so-called skill of multi-tasking as “worse than a lie.”  No matter how you look at it, being distracted (for any reason) significantly increases the risk of making a mistake and/or being injured.

Unfortunately, we are not only distracted by something in our environment, but simply by the way our minds operate!

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Do you have a people problem or a situation problem?

attribution errorAs a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”

[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].

In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue.  For example:

  • An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
  • A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
  • A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
  • An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
  • Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.

If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting.   In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.

A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology.  He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).

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How can we get employees to speak up (when they see risky behavior)?

Speak UpVictor has over 20 years experience in the warehouse.  You have a few years of experience and were just hired a few weeks ago.  Today, you are working as a team, unloading pallets of packaged materials that were delivered from the dock. As both of you approach the first pallet, Victor takes a position directly in front of the strapping that is straining under tension.  You see that this puts him in the line of fire. Instinctively, you take a step back when Victor pulls a pair of snips from his pocket to cut the strapping…

Do you speak up? Do you stop him?  Are you sure?

Perhaps you would say something.  But a surprising number of people in this situation would stay silent. Their thought process would be something like, “Surely he must know how to perform this task safely. He’s done it thousands of times.  I’m the rookie here.  Who am I to question his experience and job knowledge?”

Peer pressure is a powerful social influence.  Most of us are fearful of being considered an outcast if we are the dissenter, especially if we have less informal authority than other people in our natural work group.

You may think of peer pressure as overt statements from co-workers. “Look, this is the way things are done around here.”  But this is not always the case.  In the scenario above, Victor did not have to remind you about his seniority and experience.  It was implied and understood.

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How to Crush Learning & Improvement

working-man-shoesIt was noisy in the meeting room as the construction workers assembled early one morning.  The concrete floor and cinder block walls created an echo chamber for the men’s voices and the squeaking of metal chairs being pushed into place.  Spartan furniture and a dusty, bare floor were tell-tale signs that this room was used occasionally for crew meetings, but not much else.  Some folding tables on one side of the room strained under the weight of 3-ring binders and manuals stacked half-way to the ceiling.  Another table in the back held a large coffee urn and numerous boxes of doughnuts, most of which had already been claimed.

While Russ went to the front of the room to get the projector running, I settled into a metal chair beside the doughnut table, fighting the urge to grab one of the few remaining sugary treats.  Russ was the internal trainer. He was scheduled to talk to the group for the first hour.

The class about safety culture and leadership had been requested by the contractor’s leadership team. The company recently had some serious injuries and near misses.  They were anxious to see what could be done to prevent another event.

The managers were perplexed why some of their guys were taking risks, even though they had implored them to “be careful.”  Even more disturbing, it seemed as though someone was making a mistake on the job almost every week.  While all of these were small errors, the senior managers knew that any one of these mistakes could cause significant property damage or result in another injury under different circumstances.

As Russ went through the introductory slides and started the first class exercise, a burly man dressed in blue jeans and a shirt that appeared to be one size too small abruptly emerged from an office which adjoined the conference room.  The name plate and title above the door indicated that Ed was a supervisor.  Ed yanked his office door closed behind him, causing a loud thud when it met the door jamb.  I heard him mutter a couple of expletives as he walked briskly by my chair and walked heavily down the stairs on the far side of the room. Continue reading