How to Use Friendship and Emotional Contagion For a Better Work Environment

More often than not, people don’t want to go to work.

Why is that?

Is it because humans are cognitive misers with brains that work against them to exert as minimal effort as possible? Perhaps, but the work environment also has a role in making it unappealing to spend valuable time there.

What makes work bearable, or even fun at times? Good co-workers! Or maybe the few people there that you can actually tolerate, who assists you with getting a task accomplished, or who cracks a joke that loosens you up a bit.

Wherever co-workers or employees land on your spectrum of likable – unlikeable people in your life, they have their share of influence to make the time at work better or worse. WHYY conducted an interview with Sigal Barsade and Peter Bregman who discussed their experience and research into business management and work relationships and the influence these factors have on productivity, job satisfaction, and business growth at an organization. From emotional contagion to trust and honesty, there is a web of influential factors that promote or reduce friendships at work. Friendships at work effect the overall functioning and effectiveness of a company and benefit the organization in terms of positive job performance, employee engagement with work, and commitment to their role.

The idea of emotional contagion is fascinating. From a nonverbal communication perspective, it’s a valuable survival mechanism that occurs when an emotion, such as fear, becomes contagious in a group of animals. Being motivated by fear triggers a response to avoid a threat of danger, therefore preserving as much of the group as possible to maintain the biological continuity of the species. However, this concept is demonstrated in less intense, and not as dire, social situations. In the work place, stress and frustration are as contagious as the common cold. The important lesson here is to understand how your own emotions will affect the people around you, but also to realize that the emotions of others may affect you unintentionally, without warning, subconsciously.

Barsade and Bregman’s advice is to recognize this and remain aware of how your own emotions and the emotions of others are mutually influencing one another. We also have the ability to observe and identify an emotion without being controlled by it. This is a useful habit to practice when you want to resist another person’s contagious stress and frustration. In this deflection process, it’s important to validate the emotions of the other person (whether they are positive or negative), and attempt to make your own sense of peace, calm, or serenity the more powerfully contagious emotion over their anger or sadness. After all, serenity, calmness, and a relaxed attitude are the most contagious emotions people can transmit, which help to create a balanced work environment that benefits the entire organization. A sense of trust is maintained when negative emotions aren’t silenced or pushed to the side and ignored. They must be observed, identified, confirmed, and then slowly transformed into a more stable, preferable, or balanced emotion, like contentment. This opens the door for productive and satisfying friendships to develop in the work place.

Most people spend more time at their job than anywhere else. It’s important that you enjoy yourself and the people around you while accomplishing shared tasks and goals. By understanding the concept of emotional contagion and responding to it with a sense of acceptance and proactive preparation for when emotions come into play at work (both positive and negative), you can react appropriately and effectively to maintain an optimal level of functioning despite the freak out your cubicle neighbor just had at his computer, or the excited shrieking of a man who’s wife just called and is going into labor. Using emotions to create a sense of shared community in a work place is vital to making people enjoy where they are and the connection they have with their co-workers or bosses or employees. Problem solving, balancing work with play, and a relatively peaceful atmosphere can all contribute to a more cohesive work environment where people recognize each other as individual humans with lives at work, but also outside of work. This more holistic view of a co-worker fosters mutual understanding and provides opportunity for more satisfying relationships to be made. These friendships at work lead to more productive workers, with higher job satisfaction, more engagement, who are more committed to their time on the clock. Friendships also allow people, as social creatures, to flourish in other areas of their lives and experiment with their identity and how they navigate a variety of social situations, not limited to the work place. Additionally, work environments provide immense insight into human behavior, the effects of emotional contagion, and how organizations can improve to function effectively and to their full potential.

Take some time to ask your co-workers how they’re feeling. Taking an interest in the personality and full lives of people you’re working with is a great step to building friendships that make work better (or tolerable). It can make a huge difference in the level of trust and commitment people feel about their work place, and the other people that they share that space with!

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