Research reveals that emotions, both positive and negative, spread like viruses among employees in a work group. One study of 70 work teams, across a variety of industries, showed that members who sat in meetings together ended up sharing moods – good and bad – within two hours. People routinely “catch” each other’s feelings and this influences not only their moods but also their judgment and business decisions as well.
In one controlled study, where groups were being asked to simulate a “salary committee” attempting to fairly distribute a limited amount of money among worthy candidates, and still maximise benefit to the company, their decision-making was affected by the most expressive person in the meeting. In some groups one person was secretly asked to display “cheerful enthusiasm.” In other groups an individual was asked to display “hostile irritability”.
In the presence of “cheerful enthusiasm” groups not only felt they were more cooperative but actually had less conflict. Moreover, they allocated the money more equitably than groups intentionally infected by hostility.
When the effective groups were asked about their success, they pointed to their own skills as negotiators or to the qualities of the candidates they represented. They had no idea that their behavior had been directed by the emotions displayed by a confederate of the experimenter.
In peer groups, the most expressive person may be the key shaper of everyone’s feelings but in managed work groups that role falls to the leader. Our culture trains us deeply to pay attention to people who have power over us. In work groups the expressed emotions of team leaders and managers matter most.