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Emotional Contagion in the Workplace

By Stacene Courvallis

Our company, renowned for its specialized construction equipment, has been an example of focused growth within our industry. As the construction boom expanded, so did our operations. The rapid influx of new hires brought us Wilma, a senior executive who showed great promise during the hiring process.

Emotional Contagion in the WorkplaceHowever, three months into her role, Wilma began expressing concerns to me regarding various projects and individuals. She pointed out executives leaving work early, a budget overrun in a different department, and an engineer with sensitive information tied to a competitor. While I appreciated her vigilance for the well-being of our organization, these discussions with her soon became an ongoing burden.

Wilma believed that our corporate culture was too lenient, with other executives lacking respect for my position. She proposed refining our mission statement and goals, as well as downsizing the workforce to boost profit margins. Her persistent criticisms led me to question the overall state of our company, fueling new suspicions of other members of the executive team. Consequently, the vibrant and enjoyable atmosphere in our office began to wane, despite our financial success.

A confidential meeting with our CFO, Jason, brought a revelation. He informed me Wilma had been discussing the shortcomings of various colleagues with him and he found her concerns unwarranted. 

As I delved deeper, a pattern emerged—Wilma would confide in different executives, tarnishing the reputations of all managers except the person she was talking to. I had been drawn into Wilma’s narratives, resulting in my loss of trust in our people and loss of confidence in the company’s direction. Although unintentional on my part, I had subsequently transmitted this negativity to the rest of the team, leading to a pronounced erosion of our previously uplifting company culture.

Emotional Contagion in BusinessesA few online searches shed light on the malaise that now permeated our work atmosphere: emotional contagion. 

Like diseases, unhealthy emotions can spread among individuals in close proximity. Our entire organization had fallen victim to this contagion. 

Subsequently, I began to notice the presence of emotional contagion in every organization I encountered. A visit to a courtroom revealed an atmosphere thick with disgruntled emotion, whereas a trip to a local music store showcased genuine smiles and employees genuinely enjoying their interactions with customers and one another.

I made the difficult decision to let Wilma go, firing her on a late Friday afternoon. On Monday morning, I noticed a significant shift in the mood throughout our office. Straightaway, people regained their sense of relaxation and our company once again felt like a vibrant and creative workplace—apparently the entire staff mentally exhaled upon Wilma’s departure. 

Conversations flowed freely once more and trust was restored. With the removal of the carrier of negativity, our previously positive office tone quickly reestablished itself. Following this toxic incident, I was personally pleased and relieved to have regained a sense of pride in both our company and me.


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