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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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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Four ways to successfully engineer change

Cengineer changehange is hard.  Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge.  However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.

I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard.  I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled.  Instead, he backed up first.  Then, he slowly accelerated forward.  By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed.  As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car.  When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.

By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars.  If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time.  The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.

This is a wonderful metaphor for leading change. Continue reading

Social Influence – A Prime Driver of Workplace Safety

Social InfluenceWe are influenced by the actions of others more than we may care to admit. Many researchers have confirmed that social influence has a powerful effect on our decisions.

We experience many forms of social influence, although we probably don’t think about it.  Perhaps you purchased something after hearing about it from a friend or family member.  Or you may have joined an organization or club because someone you know is one of the members.  Throughout our lives, we have been powerfully persuaded or casually nudged thousands of times to make a decision or take an action because of social influence.

Indeed, the authors of Influencer contend that there are six sources of influence.  They refer to one of these influences as social motivation (although most of us think of this as peer pressure).

Let’s review a recent study by Pedro Gardette of Stanford that supports this concept. He wanted to measure the effect of social influence on the purchasing patterns of airline passengers. Continue reading

Is arguing ever productive?

“You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”

– Dale Carnegie

arguingObserving two people who are arguing can be fascinating.  I’m not talking about a discussion or a debate – but a genuine argument.  If both persons hold widely different perspectives and the conversation devolves into arguing, reason and common sense become secondary.  Emotions take over.  Most times, the result is a stalemate.  Neither person leaves with any sense of satisfaction – and the issue remains unresolved.

One technique that improves the chances for a more positive outcome from a disagreement is the Ransberger Pivot. It is a communication principle that is used to find common ground with an opponent. It is defined as a debate technique (first described and utilized by Ray Ransberger and Marshall Fritz in 1982) in which a person attempts to find common ground with another person they are trying to persuade.  The proposed method deploys three stages:

  1. Listen to the other person’s objections and try to understand what they are really concerned about.
  2. Understand the other person’s objections and validate how they feel about the issue.
  3. Find a common goal in the other person’s objections and convince them your way is a viable solution to the agreed problem. Use facts and share your view on a solution to what you agree is the problem.

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