The Contagion Effect: The Unexpected Reason for Emotion in the Workplace


There are some aspects of a stable economy we’ve come to expect: We can access money from our bank account, our lights come on with the flip of a switch, and when we order coffee from Starbucks it will taste the same in Michigan or Maine.

On a day when life is going well and our tasks are manageable, any one of those expectations can fall short and we can easily navigate around it. The ATM may be out of order, but you can go to another one. The power may go out from a storm, but candlelight pizza is fun. And smiling with patience goes a long way for a barista who is having a bad day and messed up your order.

But those low-stress, manageable days aren’t happening for a lot of people right now. The constant shift of what normal looks like continues to create uncertainty, which has led people to look for control or clarity wherever they can find it. The ripple effect of uncertainty goes beyond our own personal lives, which is why watching conflict from afar, whether it’s on stage at the Oscars or oceans away in Ukraine, may add fuel to the fire.

It’s no surprise, then, that industries like banking, utilities, and hospitality – which were already prone to aggression because of consumer expectations for consistent, error-free results – have been on the front lines of dealing with conflict. Other sectors now too, though, including healthcare, education, and retail have experienced more  contentious situations all around. So what’s going on here?

Perpetual trauma makes mountains out of molehills

This prolonged, uncomfortable condition we’re all feeling is contextual, and can make rehabilitation and getting back in the swing of things look and feel different for everyone. Many people have not yet fully recovered, which creates the perfect condition for hyper-sensitivity that wouldn’t otherwise stimulate a threat response.

To make matters worse, a threat response – the fight-or-flight action triggered by a release of chemicals in the brain – can have a downstream effect, because it doesn’t stop at the individual. Emotions, by design, are inherently social: we look to others for cues of social norms, like imminent danger in our environment. These social cues let us know when we need to be on guard, but they also trigger a contagion effect that transmits aggressive behavior similar to the transmission of a common cold. That’s why when a fight happens in front of you on the subway, for instance, you may feel your heart rate increase.

Here’s a clip from our 2022 NeuroLeadership Summit where Dr. Pranj Mehta discussed the social nature of these interactions.

Leaders, in particular, are a prime source of this transmission because they’re visible and attract attention. We look to influencers in our ecosystem to see how we’re supposed to respond in any given environment. The contagion effect can be positive as well, which is why role modeling is an effective leadership strategy for positive behavior. But the power of this influence is also why negative contagion can occur when leaders are stressed and display negative emotions or threat responses. This negative contagion is a tactic often seen on the campaign trail, for example, as politicians intentionally try to get their followers riled up to continue their momentum and reach a broader sphere of influence.

If emotion is the symptom, disruption is the cure

Negative emotions triggered by social contagion can place you in a cycle of cognitive escalation. This starts with increased activity from the brain’s limbic system and leads to reduced cognitive capacity in the prefrontal cortex, stealing our ability to quell  inappropriate behavior, and potentially triggering aggression towards others. Unlike a ferris wheel with one entry and exit point when it comes to a stop, think of the cycle of escalation as a merry-go-round that you can jump on or off at any time. And just like a merry-go-round, it’s safer and easier to jump off before it picks up speed.

So how can you stop, or at least pause the merry-go-round of escalation? One brain-friendly way is by getting into the habit of labeling threat intensity as soon as you detect it. Labeling works by activating our brain’s braking system and can be as simple as identifying what the body feels like in a threat state, on a scale of one to three. A level one, for example, may be a tensing of the shoulders but you can still work, whereas a level three could be tunnel vision and an inability to process external stimuli. Thinking or saying to yourself “I’m at a level two” when emotions start to emerge is an easy-to-recall habit that can allow our prefrontal cortex to re-engage, and help us regain control.

Once you label the threat intensity, you can begin to interpret the source of the conflict to find out what’s at the core of the issue. Then you can defuse the situation by actively tuning down threat responses. When employees deliberately follow this sequence, they can turn down the heat on their own emotion, therefore reducing the possibility of contagion, and keeping everyone around them calm and cool. And since we’re all still recovering, keeping cool is the smoothest path to faster healing.

Author: Joy VerPlanck, D.E.T.

Want to know more?