4 min read

Warm take: emotional contagion

"We are walking mood inductors." Sigal Barsade.
Warm take: emotional contagion
Photo by Gautam Krishnan / Unsplash

The empty suburban roads of the early pandemic offered unexpected grace as I re-learned how to drive. Though I had the judgment of a middle-aged lady, decades as a New Yorker had left me with post-adolescent driving skills.

Three years ago, I was so uncomfortable driving that I probably didn’t feel discomfort with other people’s driving. Today, hopefully minimally competent, exposure to world-class verbal profanity has proven useful for venting about various behind-the-wheel miscreants.

Beyond unmannerly driving, I’ve also felt menaced by tailgaters on winding two-lane residential roads. Or found myself driving the speed limit in the right lane, watching someone roll up, too fast, in the rearview, only then swoop around and by, too close.

The other day a New Yorker in my circle described an an upswing in unpleasant interactions on the street and out in public. Seemed like what I was seeing from behind the wheel: a lot of people acting out of frustration and anger.

This has got to be showing up in our workplaces, right? Searching outside my own world for signs, data, or information, I wasn’t terribly satisfied. The business self-help genre is full of suggestions and content marketing on managing your own anger at work, or dealing with your team’s anger. Some were ok, some were utterly useless, none were worth sharing here.

So, I thought back to the late Sigal Barsade’s academic work on emotional contagion. We actually “catch” emotions from one another. To an extent, we can manage this.

While you can’t necessarily change your coworkers, people can take steps to avoid catching a negative mood…. Barsade gave the example of a manager who was dragged down at the start of every day when passing by the desk of an employee who either grunted or gave no acknowledgement. The manager took control and simply started following a different route through the office.

Managing Emotions in the Workplace: Do Positive and Negative Attitudes Drive Performance? Knowledge@Wharton, April 7, 2007.

If my friend and I aren’t simply overly sensitive — lol, nah, New Yorkers, whaddaya looking at — we’re in a new spiral.

Imagine my hypothetical tailgater as a knowledge worker who, when remote, had appreciated not catching emotions on their commute. Not to mention not having to mediate their own reactions to racist and sexist aggressions and microaggressions most of us can experience in public. And the new life balance they found when not commuting.

Now this person is in a sort of silent tussle about RTO, and headed in to work. Are they angry?

That guy who rode my bumper on a quiet suburban thoroughfare the other morning, the grille on his big ass truck, so close, monstrous teeth in my rearview– he's probably not bringing the joy to the office. Or to the workplaces of the baristas, librarians, or healthcare workers he may see in his travels.

So, yeah, I’m guessing this is coming into our workplaces. Like the sadness we haven’t processed yet — millions dead, people who now have chronic health issues, or who have had careers derailed — we’re not really talking about it.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Sigal Barsade called emotional contagion "the contagion we can control." Well, yes. And also, to be clear, while working on ourselves is great, this upsetness not a problem that will be solved solely through individual self-mastery. As leaders we must think bigger. And we need one another.

What are you seeing in your workplace? Send me a note, I’d love to hear from you.

Many thanks

I'm grateful that you're reading On Management. Special thanks to those who support my newsletter financially. Coming soon, my (nearly) annual summer reading issue.

May you and your loved ones be safe, healthy, and free.

Anne Libby

P.S. Generally speaking, I'm not paywalling most new posts. However, I do send some issues by email exclusively to Supporters. Like Warm Take: a story behind a story, which I've updated substantially since it went out in May, and unpaywalled this morning.

Showing my work

People joyously dancing on 4 lanes of cars, stopped, bumper to bumper, sunny day, looks like CA
"Light up if you're feeling happy/But if it's bad then let those tears roll down" Joan Armatrading