Emotional Contagion

A Positive Workplace Culture Can Stem From a Single Positive Employee

“Instead of trying to make a better robot, try to make a better man” - Shimon Peres

Why should you care if your employees are happy? Wouldn’t it be easier if humans were more like robots – not expressing any emotions and just getting the work done? As we dive deeper into the idea of an emotional culture in the workplace, I want you to think of a time when you were at work and sensed that one of your coworkers was angry or simply woke up on the wrong side of the bed. You may not have known what was causing this unpleasant mood, but the more you interacted with this angry person, you may have started feeling angry yourself, or seeing other coworkers becoming angry as well.  Conversely, when you are around very joyous people their joy can be contagious as well. One happy-go-lucky coworker can influence your mood and result in you feeling joy yourself.

Emotions are contagious – the emotions that one employee or one leader expresses can influence others throughout the company, and can even reach the customer. Through emotional contagion the employee who is expressing an emotion will share that emotion with others around them (Barsade & Gibson, 2012; Barsade & O’Neill, 2016). Intentionally expressing positive affect while working with a team can result in an increased quality and quantity of ideas. (Barsade & Gibson, 2012). Those working in the customer service industry can actually see the change that their positive moods are having on their customers (Pugh, 2001).

Creating a positive emotional culture has been found to be equally as important in the workplace as other verbalized cultural norms (Barsade & O’Neill, 2016). Cultivating a positive emotional culture in your organization can lead to positive outcomes such as increased employee productivity, reduced burnout and turnover, increased organizational commitment, and even financial gain (Barsade & O’Neill, 2016). So how do you create a positive cultural environment?

If you’re a current employee and you want to provide that positive emotional contagion, fake it ‘til you make it! Acting like you are happy (surface acting), and truly wanting to be happy (deep acting) can result in you actually feeling the emotion of joy (Barsade & O’Neill, 2016; Grandey, 2003). For example, try saying good morning to those around you when you get into the office, even if walking into the office makes your morning feel not so good. This would be an example of surface acting.  In deep acting, an individual embodies the emotion that they want to express. They not only look like they are feeling joy, but they actually want to feel joy. This transcends to those that they encounter which will continuously cycle back to the person who initiated the positive emotion. Stepping out of your comfort zone to force this initial positivity could start a trend that eventually leads to the culture shift you’re looking for.

If you’re an HR professional or supervisor and you want to change your company’s culture, seek out new hires who have the positive disposition you are looking for. A few new employees with a friendly attitude can produce the emotional contagion you desire. You can also ask a few key employees to start acting, and look for the emotional contagion that results.

By creating a positive workplace culture, companies are creating an environment where employees can be more productive and more satisfied at work. Moods are infectious, whether positive or negative in nature, so making sure that those emotions are positive can have tremendous effects across your organization. Whether you’re an individual or an organizational leader, you can capitalize on emotional contagion to positively influence your workplace culture and benefit from a more inviting and productive work environment as a result.


Barsade, S. G. & Gibson, D. E. (2012). Group affect its influence on individual and group outcomes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(2), 119-123.

Barsade, S. G. & O’Neill, O. A. (2016). Manage your emotional culture. Harvard Business Review, 94(1), 58-66.

Pugh, S. D. (2001). Service with a smile: Emotional contagion in the service encounter. Academy of Management Journal, 44(5), 1018-1027.

Grandey, A. A. (2003). When “the show must go on”: Surface acting and deep acting as determinants of emotional exhaustion and peer-rated service delivery. Academy of Management Journal, 46(1), 86-96.