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Emotional Contagion

Emotional Contagion in the Workplace - Part II

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Emotional Contagion in the Workplace - Part II

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In Emotional Contagion in the Workplace - Part I, I wrote about the existence of patterns that can affect productivity in ways that can’t be accurately forecast, and that emotional contagion is one of these patterns. In research published in 2010, researchers from Harvard formally demonstrated that emotions can be thought of as infectious diseases spreading across social networks, including at work.  The study looked at being "content" and "discontent" as two viruses, and found that these emotions could be "caught" from others in the social network. Key findings of the research include:

  • It was possible for individuals to spontaneously become infected (this happens more often for positive emotions);
  • Like a biological virus, individuals would return to a neutral (non-infected) state after the virus had run its' course (though this could take years).
  • Negative emotions (discontent) are twice as contagious as Positive emotions (content); but recovery is twice as fast - so on balance, the rates of discontent and content tend to be about the same in a population.
  • It's also possible to have a "superinfection", where someone who is discontent catches the content virus; or vice-versa.  

This research has significant implications for workplaces.  Many studies have focused on the link between happiness and productivity - according to one, "happier workers were 12% more productive. Unhappier workers were 10% less productive." (source) So what happens when happiness and unhappiness go viral at work?  Even with the same headcount, you get wild fluctuations in output.  Below is a very simple viral contagion model.  At the start, there are equal numbers of happy and unhappy workers (1 in 9); and the bulk of the employees are in a neutral state (78%).  The unpredictable nature of emotional contagion has some interesting effects:

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Because of the randomness / chance of the interactions,  every time you run a simulation you get a different scenario - and because of the contagion aspect, these differences can be significant, even within the same scenario.  If you overlay the figures for productivity; the productivity difference between these scenarios is significant.  The result is that it's difficult to accurately predict output from a workforce over time, even if your hiring and retention rates are constant - and that's just one of the reasons why workforce planning that focuses on headcount planning alone is of limited value.

The good news is that there are actions you can take to boost employee happiness in your organisation, and minimise the fallout of the viral contagion of negative emotions.  In part III I'll be writing about some of the ways you boost productivity, even if you can't predict it.

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Emotional Contagion in the Workplace - Part I

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Emotional Contagion in the Workplace - Part I

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Sneeze vector

Much of the work we do in Strategic Workforce Planning involves taking both internal and external trends, and determining how they might play out for your organisation.  Once you've done that, you can determine tactics to harness or address these trends to prepare for the best possible future workforce.

Sometimes, there are clear trends happening inside the organisation that are unsustainable - high performers turning over, key skills being lost, etc.  Identifying those trends through workforce analytics lets you understand the nature and extent of the problem, and determine strategies for addressing them.  By targeting these initiatives to where you need them most, you can ensure that your HR and Talent Management strategies are effective and efficient.

On the other side of the coin, workforce analytics and environment scanning help you to recognise opportunities and areas that the organisation is doing well in, so that you can capitalise on those.  People who are trained in a particular skillset are 20% more productive?  There's your ROI for the training initiative right there.

One of the key things to recognise in any kind of workforce futuring is that it's not just about headcount - you need to take into account the skillset and the productivity of the workforce too... and some trends can effect productivity in ways that just can't be predicted.  Key among these is engagement.  The good news is that engagement (like many emotions in the workplace) is contagious.  The bad news is that disengagement is twice as contagious.  Further, trends that are subject to "contagion" have multiplier effects that can't be accurately forecast. In a coming post, I'll be talking about the research that supports emotional contagion in the workplace, the implications of this, and what you can do about it.  Stay tuned.

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