The holidays are just about over and we’re heading into the dead of winter, at least here in Philadelphia. And if cold weather and long nights weren’t enough, it’s also cold and flu season. Yeah, that officially started sometime back during the fall, but everybody knows it really kicks into high gear after New Year’s.

But there’s an even more important contagion to watch out for in the office, especially this time of year. It’s more catching. It’s very difficult to eradicate. And it can be far more destructive to productivity and morale than any isolated outbreak of rhinovirus.

It’s an emotional contagion–a wordless and infectious mood that spreads from one employee to another. Fortunately, emotional contagions aren’t necessarily negative, and even the negative ones can be identified and corrected by a judicious and self-aware manager.

At least, that’s the claim in a new working paper out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business. As researchers there put it, “Executives can use their knowledge of the impact of mood contagion to create more positive team dynamics, increase performance, and decrease turnover by consciously managing their own emotions and the emotions they want to spread in their teams.”

There’s two parts to turning a workplace into a Petri dish for positive emotions. The first, and perhaps most important, is the responsibility of a manager to regulate his or her own emotions. The second is neutralizing negative contagions as they appear on the team. That’s not as dystopian as it sounds, and helpfully, the UPenn researchers have put together five “action steps” to help get it done.

Action plan

  1. Be consciously aware of your own mood. Yes, you’re a person with feelings. But you’re also a manager, and your feelings can be helpful or unhelpful. So if you’re “feeling” like telling somebody that you don’t like their stupid face, then change your feeling. Or fake it. At least until you’re off the clock.
  2. Use your nonverbal behaviors to communicate emotional contagion. The researchers point out that the majority of communication is nonverbal, and much of it is body language. So uncross your arms and stop unintentionally scowling at the perky intern who brought you a mochaccino just because. Smile, be open and welcoming.
  3. Make direct eye contact with everyone on the team. Looking at the floor or at the clock over their shoulders is not a pro move. If you’re feeling good, your team will get that through your eyes.
  4. Neutralize a negative team member. It can be as easy as not looking at that team member during group meetings. Remember: You’re staying positive, communicating that both verbally and non-verbally, and making eye contact with your team members. So if somebody isn’t getting that eye contact from you, they’ll feel it.
  5. Create a positive emotional culture within the team. There’s a lot more to this than can fit in a bullet point, but it’s the whole idea. Create a positive culture, and the negative emotional contagions that destroy productivity and morale have nothing to feed on.

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