Emotions are contagious, part 4: Don’t be fake

Continuing in my exploration of Emotional Contagion, I want to look into fake emotions.

If emotions rub off on other people, then the natural response is to require all employees to pretend to be super upbeat all the time. If everyone is smiling at each other, even if they’re not real smiles, shouldn’t that make everyone feel happier?

Taking it a step further, if the simple act of smiling makes someone happier, then even without anyone around shouldn’t companies require their employees to act positive and upbeat?

But looking more into how emotional contagion works, “fake it ’til you make it” is completely wrong.

Real emotions show through

Elaine Hatfield, the pioneer in the field of Emotional Contagion talks about how she realized that emotions were contagious.

Talking with an arrogant, competitive professor, Hatfield always felt as if she’d said something stupid although she knew she hadn’t. During one of these painful exchanges, she began to notice brief expressions of anxiety on his face, a rise in his voice, twitching in his body as he shifted from foot to foot—all signs that he was uncomfortable and looking to prove himself. “This discomfort wasn’t going on in me,” says Hatfield, “but in him.” (From Why Emotions are Contagious on www.oprah.com)

This professor was acting proud and strong, but his true emotion – his own self doubt – was being revealed.

In fact, true emotions can’t be hidden even if you try. Take a look at this study in the journal Psychological Science.

Participants were shown a face with either a happy, angry, or neutral expression, but only for 30 milliseconds. The expressive faces weren’t on the screen long enough for the participants to notice, so they had no idea that they were being subconsciously exposed to them. Still, the participants who were shown the happy face displayed increased electrical activity in the muscles needed to smile and mimic that face, and vice versa with the angry face. (From Monkey See, Monkey Do: Emotions Are Contagious Because Of Mirror Neurons In Brain on www.medicaldaily.com)

It takes less than 30 milliseconds of seeing an emotion for it to have an impact on the viewer. So even if you were to fake it 99% of the time, your true emotions would still emerge and have an impact.

Faking it has a high cost

Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State studied “service with a smile”. Her research concluded that “requiring positive emotions from employees induces dissonance and depleted resources, which hinders task performance and threatens well-being.” Further, emotional display requirements “limit self-determination by threatening the autonomy, competence, and belongingness needs of employees.”

In fact, Grandey suggests that in most industries, enforced ‘service with a smile’ should be banned.

Being authentic is better

It turns out that authentic workers make better and more productive workers. Successfully creating an authentic workplace has innumerable benefits. High level talent are empowered when they can be authentic. It helps avoid problems because people aren’t afraid to say something when they notice something wrong. Authentic employees also have significantly higher job satisfaction and lower levels of work related stress.

Positive Authenticity

So what you want is employees who are both real – and really into what they do. Employees who have a great workspace, great colleagues, and really believe in their company and what they’re doing. And employees who are empowered to be themselves and let their feelings show.

Anyone might have a bad day. But if you have a mission and people know that they make a difference, they’ll more often than not be excited to come into work. And that enthusiasm will spread virally throughout your company.

If you enjoyed this article, feel free to read my other posts on Emotions are Contagious:

Part 1: The Importance of Taking Time to Reboot your Mood.
Part 2: How positive emotional contagion can work remotely.
Part 3: Different types of people in your company

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