Last night we ran our first teleseminar on Intention, which was fantastically well-attended by people all over the world. If you missed it, we’ll be running another one soon on developing intuition, so stay tuned.
One of the questions I repeatedly receive during workshops such as last night’s is how to protect yourself from the collective negative effect and intention of a group. Why do certain groups fairly irradiate ‘bad vibes’ and others joyful ones? Why is it that when you attend certain events you are elated and yet others leave you feeling utter depressed? How can you prevent yourself from becoming ‘infected’ by it, most people ask? What kind of psychic protection do you need?
Recently I found a fascinating answer to this, in the work of Professor Sigal Barsade, who teaches management at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania.
As a young graduate student, Sigal went to work one day and noticed that something fundamentally had changed – something that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. There were no new employees, no change of management and no change of scenery, but she might have strayed into the wrong office, so different was the atmosphere from usual.
The general mood, usually so edgy and stressful, had completely transformed. Those who’d stared at her and barely acknowledged her before now looked up from their work and smiled. Workers who’d usually spent the entirety of every day glued to their computer screens took breaks to chat around the coffee machine.
For the whole of that blissful week, the group with whom she regularly worked was more relaxed and sociable than she’d ever thought them capable of. For the first time, she began to look forward to going to work.
The following week, the veil that seemed to have been lifted abruptly dropped. The collective mood was back to normal – tense, testy and sullen.
Barsade was confused by it all. Nothing was different about the week, and yet the whole of the office had been profoundly affected – for the worst. When Sigal cast around for an explanation, the only difference – the only variable to which she could attribute this change – was the return of a petulant co-worker from vacation.
The negative virus
Even though the woman didn’t work with Barsade’s group, so palpable was her complaining and snappish temperament that it had engulfed everyone who worked at the company, like a virus raging through the office and infecting everyone in its path.
Barsade, who was in the midst of her master degree in business at the time, began to think of this employee’s moodiness as a contagion. Perhaps it was, she thought, that people were walking ‘mood inductors’.
She decided to test what she began calling ‘the ripple effect’ of emotion by devising an ingenious experiment with students at the Business School. In her experiment, she created four groups of students, who were to act as managers assigning a pay bonus among their employees, with each manager acting as an advocate on behalf of his own team member.
The mood regulator
Unbeknownst to the students, Barsade had placed a cuckoo in the nest of each group – a drama student who was asked to act out a different amount of pleasantness and energy in each group.
The results were striking. Even though ‘Rick’ had offered identical participation in every group, each one was profoundly affected by his moods and, what’s more, the members of each group responded in kind.
When Rick was upbeat, so was that particular group; when he exuded pessimism and negativity, his bad mood infected every other member of the group and they were less likely to cooperate with each other. When he was calm and happy, the group was more likely to bond and work with each other productively.
The effect was not only insidious, but also completely unconscious. Even when the separate groups filled out questionnaires, all attributed their own effectiveness within the group to other factors — never to collective mood.
Rick’s effect on each group also extended to all encounters he had with group members on campus in subsequent months. Those with whom he’d acted positively greeted him warmly; those in groups in which he’d been the group pessimist continued to greet him hostilely or with chilly silence.
Positive is more contagious
Barsade made another fascinating discovery, however: Rick’s positive moods were more socially contagious than his bad moods, and were more likely to act like a giant virus, overwhelming the group. In fact, when Rick was in his positive state, the group actually gave him more money than he’d asked for.
Barsade concluded that both kinds of emotion – positive and negative – are contagious, but that positive emotions are the more powerful and stimulate others to be more cooperative.
Emotions are virulent viruses. Almost immediately our emotions infect others; elements in our brains and bodies immediately begin to copy theirs. (If you don’t believe this, try to resist smiling when someone — even a newscaster on TV — smiles at you.)
During a recent study in which participants listened to a speech read by an actor, alternately using happy, unhappy or neutral inflections of speech, when the participants were asked to rate their own emotional states, in every instance, their own emotions matched those of the speaker while he was reading the speech.
Furthermore, when they were asked provide their attitude toward the speaker, they were least fond of the speaker with the unhappy voice.
An ugly mood
I was witness to the power of emotional contagion at a conference we once ran in London. During question time, a member of the audience began to heckle one of our speakers, who had made a number of fascinating, but controversial points.
Almost immediately the mood turned very ugly, and the entire audience took it in turns to verbally attack the speaker. The collective mood, formerly so positive, had been thoroughly hijacked.
These were early days in my speaking career, and as master of ceremonies, I wasn’t sure how to restore audience confidence or order.
I picked up the microphone, went back to the initial questioner’s question, politely but firmly defended our speaker from attacks and went back to address the unfair methodology of the heckler.
Then, to try to dispel the icy silence, the speaker and I jointly told a joke, giving everyone our widest smiles. Order and confidence were immediately restored, the mood had lifted and at the break, the heckler approached our speaker to apologize.
Perhaps the best antidote to negativity is not protection at all, but examining it from the perspective of relationship. Rather than reacting to negativity, simply start your own virus — a contagion of good will.