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Emotional Contagion and Employee Relations

January 18, 2016

catching a cold.jpg

Originally posted on LinkedIn, Pulse

Emotional contagion occurs when someone’s emotions affect others, causing them to “catch” that behavior or attitude like a virus (e.g., the common cold or the flu). The behavior or attitude that is “caught” can be good or bad, depending upon the environment and the people involved. A number of studies suggest that others’ attitudes or reactions can influence us, perhaps more than we realize, and especially in groups (e.g., at work).


Is someone panicking about a problem? If so, others may panic as well. Is there a negative Tweet or Facebook status going viral? Others may adopt and spread those negative or sad feelings out of empathy or a sense of agency. Big data has allowed researchers to look at very large numbers of people to determine that negative thoughts and attitudes can spread like an epidemic, thanks to social media.

With the rise of unionization efforts, it’s not surprising that technology has become a means to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. In fact, it’s to be expected now that the NLRB will allow “click to organize.” One has to wonder if employers even have a chance to fight the negative emotional contagion virus once it’s started to spread.

The answer is a resounding “yes.” Despite the fact that there is no such thing as a level playing field in the current labor relations climate, employers can be proactive and consistent with their messages and practices.

If there is an environment of transparency and mutual respect (i.e., a strong immune system), chances are lower that little problems will develop into rapidly-spreading negative emotional viruses.

Viruses are parasitic and can’t live or spread without a host. Therefore, without a conducive environment, it is less likely the virus of negative emotional contagion will take hold in the workplace.

Here’s a little advice adapted from the CDC:

  • Detect new, unusual, or adverse events = know your people
  • Monitor increases in known adverse events = listen to your people
  • Identify potential risk factors for particular types of adverse events = understand what is important to your people 
  • Identify increased numbers or types of reported adverse events = pay attention to symptoms and find root causes to address problems head-on
  • Assess the safety of newly licensed vaccines = stick to the basics of good employee relations and make changes with caution

It is imperative that employers assess their organizations now and appropriately vaccinate through positive employee relations practices. Don’t avoid, don’t ignore, and please, don’t think you’re immune. Finally, don’t wait for an epidemic of negative emotional contagion to get good advice if symptoms increase in severity.

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