How to win the Emotional Contagion Battle

Someone will always win – let it be you!

My friend ‘Harold’ and I were yesterday discussing the critical impact that conversations have on the culture and performance of an organisation. Harold is a highly respected and experienced businessman and consultant, semi-retired, and currently Chairman of the Board of a very large institution embarking on a necessary and significant cultural change process

Interestingly, he was lamenting the state of conversation he is experiencing across the board – in politics, in coffee shops, in business meetings and in Boardrooms. Harold came to Australia in the 1970’s – to a refreshing culture of boldness, larrikinism and authenticity which, in his observation, seems to have been diluted and sanitised to the point of non-existence – and in his opinion to the detriment of the culture of both our personal and professional worlds.

“You start a conversation over a coffee, and it ends up a whinge-fest and somehow you get drawn into it.”

And that’s called Emotional Contagion. It’s a real and powerful force. AND it operates predominantly below our conscious realisation.

Your brain is highly tuned to connect and align with the emotional states of those around you, and for good reason via some clever brain cells called mirror neurons.

Imagine you are not in the line of sight of some form of extreme danger, but your friend is. Your friend sees it, they become instantly fearful, and somehow you are able to instantly and intuitively pick up on that fear and feel it as well, without any form of deliberate or language-based communication needed and you respond accordingly. From an evolutionary perspective, this sophisticated human ability is quite useful in keeping you safe.

Emotional contagion is why you can intuitively ‘know’ when your child or partner is not happy, or that the manager at the end of the boardroom table is about to share something bad.

So when two or more individuals come together in two or more emotional states, there begins a battle. In this Emotional Contagion Battle, with the absence of deliberate and conscious overriding, the negative emotion will always win – for all the evolutionary reasons I’ve already mentioned.

And it is a difficult battle to win. It can feel a bit like yellow food colouring in a glass of water fighting to stay yellow when some black has been mixed in…! An uphill battle!

Sometimes, of course, this overriding negative view is necessary, but in our socially evolved and relatively safe business environments it gets in the way of the objectivity, logic and useful intuition needed for a great organisational culture to survive.

Now the evolutionary odds are against us here.

  • Humans are born with a negativity bias – an evolutionary tendency to view the world from a negative perspective before a positive one.
  • To save the expensive use of brain fuel required to think consciously, our brains encode and automate repeated patterns of thinking and behaviour – if you regularly see or engage in ‘whinging’, then your brain encodes (hardwired) that way of being.
  • Engaging in those hardwired activities is easy and preferred by the brain – again under the brain fuel saving banner.

So, it’s hard, but only when we are not paying attention. And of course, for all the same reasons we can start to REWIRE and train ourselves to firstly, reframe to overcome our natural tendency to be drawn to the negative, and then, with full conscious deliberate-ness, WIN THE EMOTIONAL CONTAGION BATTLE.

Someone will always win – let it be you.

So let’s apply Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle to this…

We’ve started with WHY it is important for you to be on the lookout and deal with Emotional Contagion.

WHAT do you need to about it? You need to recognise it, check in on your own emotional state and assess its usefulness and, if necessary, reframe it. And then hold your ground to win the Emotional Contagion Battle

HOW do you do that? Three easy steps…

  1. Acknowledge it – call the emotional state of the other person or the group. Eg, “I can see that this is really frustrating you”
  2. Shrink wrap it – people need to be heard and validated. Ask them to succinctly express their concerns and then shrink wrap that into a phrase or idea or concept that represents it – then put it aside. Eg, “So it’s really about….”
  3. Redirect it – gently redirect the conversation to what can be usefully done about it, or to a more useful conversation entirely. Eg, “What specifically do you want to now do about it so you can move on…”

Master leaders understand this and consciously and patiently, and with permission, redirect the attention of their teams to places where positivity, creativity and engagement can thrive.

Have a great day!


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