Creating a positive emotional temperature

Feb 12 2008 by Myra White Print This Article

Workplaces are like the weather. They have emotional temperatures. There can be a positive high energy current circulating or a misty gloom where people are just trudging through their day or there can be an undercurrent of anger in which people are impatient and irritated with each other.

This is because emotions are catching. Just as people in an office can all be felled by the same flu, they can all catch the same emotion creating a positive temperature or a sub-zero one.

Psychologist's call this phenomena emotional contagion. Usually our awareness of it hovers just below the surface. We know that certain people leave us feeling optimistic and ready to take on the world while others seem to drain the life out of us and after a few hours with them we want to take a nap or fortify ourselves with a strong injection of caffeine. However, we rarely clearly articulate our susceptibility to catching each others moods.

By becoming more attuned to how emotional contagion affects us and the emotional temperature in our workplace, we can help keep the temperature in the positive range and raise workplace performance.

The first place to start is to make sure that we are emitting positive emotions. Not only will this help elevate the overall workplace temperature but it will help our performance and career. People want to work with high-performing people who bring them up, not down.

For bosses it is particularly important to be a beacon of positive emotions. People key on their boss's moods. When a boss fails to keep the emotional temperature in the positive range, it can have a significant impact on performance.

For bosses it is particularly important to be a beacon of positive emotions.

Consider a boss who is worried and anxious. The people who work for him soon catch his worry and anxiety. This leads them to work less effectively which in turn increases the boss's worries and anxiety with the subsequent effect that people become even more anxious and debilitated. The result is poor performance and a downward temperature spiral which is difficult to stop.

One of the best managers that I have observed consciously keeps the emotional temperature in his office in the positive range. At the beginning of the day, he goes by each employee's office and greets them warmly and inquires how they are. The positive energy he adds to the workplace is contagious. You can feel it when you walk through the door.

While we can help keep the emotional temperature in our workplace on the plus side by actively adding positive energy to the emotional soup, we also need to know how to get rid of people's negative emotions when we do catch them.

One way is to use the power of our facial expressions and body language. Psychologists have found that by changing our facial expressions and body language, we can actually change our moods. We can make ourselves sad by hunching our shoulders and slumping in our chairs or we can pick up our moods by sitting up and smiling.

Try smiling and see how it affects your mood. At first you may feel like you've just been to the dentist and your mouth is still numb from the Novocain but if you keep at it, you will soon find your spirits lifting. You can also change your body language. Lifting your head and shoulders will help remove the feelings of inadequacy that you've caught from a discouraged fellow worker.

Similarly, if you've just absorbed a dose of anxiety, breathing in the slower deeper way that you do when you are relaxed will help disperse it. Actors use these techniques all the time to help them genuinely feel the emotions of the characters that they are portraying.

We can also use these techniques to protect ourselves from other people's negative emotions. One reason that we catch other people's emotions is that we unconsciously synchronize our facial expressions and physical postures with theirs when we are around them.

As a result, we not only start modeling their facial expressions and body postures but we also start feeling the same way that they do. If they are unhappy or angry, we soon feel unhappy and angry. By consciously stopping ourselves from engaging in this process, we can prevent ourselves from catching their negative emotions.

Just being aware of emotional contagion and how it affects us, gives us a powerful tool that we can use to elevate the emotional temperature of our workplace. By keeping our own mood up and avoiding catching the current negative emotions that are circulating, we can raise performance levels in our workplace and make it a place where we all love to work.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.