How emotional contagion disrupts a firm’s culture

As leaders we constantly watch over and protect the culture we have so carefully built within the firm. We focus on finding functional ways to build the morale within our team but are we always aware of the less obvious forces that can be so disruptive as to reverse all of this careful, painstaking work?

Wharton School’s Professor Sigal Barsade states that one of the most common threats to a company’s culture and morale is “emotional contagion.” He defines emotional contagion as co-workers catching other people’s emotions through subconscious mimicry to the point where they are convinced that the emotions are their own. If one colleague becomes worried about the organisation’s health or if he or she voices general fear, anger and anxiety about work, the mood can quickly spread.   Since mood can be a powerful influence on performance, leaders need to be particularly vigilant and take steps to ensure this negative emotional contagion is contained.

It is important that leaders address the problem head-on. Usually employees often do not realise how negatively they are being perceived, or how this affects the people around them.

Barsdale indicates that the best insurance against emotional contagion is to create an environment in which positive emotions are encouraged. A strong emotional culture will make it clear that destructive, negative emotions are unacceptable and provide employees the power to self-regulate.

Do you have experience of culture and morale being destroyed or severely impacted because of emotional contagion? What other, non-obvious, factors have detrimentally affected your organisation’s culture and morale? How did you address these issues?

About Peter Borner

Peter is an entrepreneur and successful business leader. Currently leading a consultancy firm specialising in technical diligence for M&A and advising global firms on IT consolidation and migration to consumption based costing through the use of Cloud Technologies.

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Very interesting article and thanks for pointing to this research.

I devour any resource on "culture" and I believe that you need to actively define and shape it at individual, team, organization level. One of the things we try at is to hire for attitude and diversity, check for small signs of positivism as well as negativity, amplify or arrest it immediately, and keep a scorecard on our "culture". If we are different from each other, we are doing good. When everyone starts thinking "alike", there is a problem. We take care to separate thinking "alike" from acting on a commonly shared goal though :)

I'll check the resource from Prof. Sigal Bersade next! Thanks again.


I had an experience in 2008 when the economy impacted our profits. As the owner, I was unable to give an extra paycheck at Christmas, which my two employees had come to expect, even though it was purely discretionary. My two long term employees were aware that I had given up my paycheck in August so they would get their salary that month, but nevertheless they still expected the bonus a few months later. They were both shocked and angry about not getting the bonus and fed each other's negativity. I spoke to both of them about their mood, morale, bitterness, and how that was affecting the ability of the company to function. They would not change. I spoke to them again. No change. After 2 months of dealing with angry behavior, I finally replaced one of them with a different person. The second one resigned 9 months later at the worst possible time for my company.

I now have a group of people who enjoy their jobs, get along with each other, and don't take anything for granted. The sense of entitlement is not there. I love working with them.


The negative Emotional Contagion is most powerful when it comes from a superior. However, "jovial leader" is a kind of an oxymoron. It's a real catch 22 and only the great ones tow the line.

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