Why Your Bad Mood Is More Toxic Than You Think

Dr. Nicole Lipkin is a leadership expert, keynote speaker, and author of What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.


Emotions can spread like wildfire in the workplace. One negative, difficult person can bring down the whole team while one optimistic, friendly team member can lift the whole team up. Psychologists call this emotional contagion.

One famous example was in 2004 when football player Terrell Owens signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. With Owens’s help, the team won 13 of 16 games, the best record in the NFL, and finally made it to the big game. Though the Eagles lost, they turned in an extraordinary performance.

In the off-season after the Super Bowl, Owens demanded he be rewarded for his performance with an enhanced contract even though he knew the team’s policy prohibited such renegotiations.As it turned out, the Eagles Management turned down T.O.’s demand and, at the start of the 2005 training camp, the bitter Owens became such a destructive and distracting force in the locker room that management sent him home.

Owens’s individual rancor eroded team-cohesiveness, drew team focus away from the goal of getting to another Super Bowl, and began to hamper performance on the field. Mid-season, the Eagles decided to cut their losses and sent the toxic Owens packing, unfortunately too late at that point for the team to get back on track.


One Bad Apple

Research has shown that emotions strongly influence our memory, our perception of events, our thought processes and, ultimately, our behavior. In the workplace, people’s moods tremendously impact decision-making, problem-solving, attention/focus, interpersonal interactions, performance, productivity, and the whole organizational culture.

Sigal Barsade, a professor at Wharton Business School, studies emotional contagion and observed that “People are walking mood inductors, continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.” In her research she found that positive emotions created more cooperation; negative emotions increased conflict and decreased cooperative decision-making.

Emotional contagion involves both subtle and not-so-subtle psychological and physiological processes. It begins with our human tendency, beginning in infancy, to mimic the nonverbal behaviors, facial expressions, body language, speech patterns and vocal tones of others.Mommy smiles down on you, you smile back. Daddy frowns, you cannot help frowning, too. This automatic mimicry triggers a physiological feedback loop where the muscular and glandular responses from mimicking trigger an emotion.

Virtual Toxicity

Emotional contagion doesn’t just happen face-to-face, it can also happen in the virtual/remote world. In 2013, Kramer, Guillory & Hancock released a large scale, controversial study demonstrating the emotionally contagious nature of social media. Facebook wanted to know if what you see in your news feed impacts the way you feel. Specifically, if your news feed is depressing and doom and gloom, will you also feel that way? And if it’s upbeat and happy, will you also feel upbeat and happy?

The link was relatively obvious. When you see more negative things, you post more negative things. When you see more positive things, you post more positive things. Simply observing other people’s positive or negative experiences can constitute a positive or negative emotional experience by the viewer.

This is, of course, an intuitive finding. Many of us who use social media have experienced that friend who constantly posts about how miserable their life is or discusses politics with hostility and rage. Over time, and not that much time, that friend feedback triggers negativity in you. Or what about the friend who is pretty positive and loves to post funny animal videos or heartwarming stories? Pay attention to your reaction over the long term.

Smiles Are Contagious Too

Keeping emotional contagion on a positive track requires conscientious effort. In your own organization and in your own life, use these tips to instill and maintain the right mood and keep other people’s bad moods at bay:

Check yourself: You can’t successfully mask your emotions and moods because it seeps into your tone, facial expression, posture, etc. Therefore, accurate self-awareness of your own mood and your non-verbal behaviors goes a long way toward fostering positive emotional contagion. Sometimes you need to just walk away and repair your mood and sometimes, if it’s too late, you need to acknowledge the bad mood and apologize for the damage it’s caused.

Apply empathy: The best teams, co-workers, or just relationships in general follow the basic rule that pointing out bad moods without fear of retribution is welcome, provided it is done in a helpful, empathetic way. Just as we may have trouble recognizing our own mood states and the impact they have on others, it is the same for the people with whom we work or live closely.

Ask what you can do to help. Listen to their story. But whatever you do, withhold judgment or criticism.This helps others recognize and adjust their own mood and establishes the foundation for a collectively empathetic and caring relationship. If you don’t know the infectious person, just like with any contagious disease, step away and maintain your distance when possible.

Use humor: Not every situation lends itself to a good laugh, but nothing diffuses unhappiness more quickly than something funny that instantly lightens the mood. Remember Mommy smiling down on you? A simple expression can alter a mood.

Employ positive e-communication: Every email, IM or text you send can either irritate or please the recipient. Never forget the little courtesies and pleasantries, such as “please” and “thank you” or“Have a great day.” Such statements create a positive, empathetic experience for the reader.

Get out there and find a puppy or kitten: When you absorb other people’s moods, sometimes you need to create actual physical distance for a few minutes and surround yourself with things that make you happy. Exposing yourself to people that you feel good around or things that make you laugh and smile (even a YouTube video of cute animals) will help.

Hide the negative feed: If you are an avid social media user, hide the consistently negative folks by blocking them from showing up on your news feed. Life is short and valuable. Why waste your precious time being infected by a computer or phone screen when you can just click a button? Save your intermittent exposures for the times when you really do need to spend some face-to-face time with someone who is struggling.

It is a fact of life that we all impact each other positively and negatively on a daily basis. Few will be an overnight success managing their own and others’ emotional contagion. The key is to mitigate the impact and realize that sometimes we all need a time-out from ourselves, and from others.

Nicole Lipkin, Psy.D., MBA is a leadership expert, keynote speaker and author of What Keeps Leaders Up At Night and Y In The Workplace. She is the CEO of Equilibria Leadership Consulting. Email nlipkin@equilibrialeadership.com or connect @DrNicoleLipkin.

Check out the trailer for Nicole’s new book, What Keeps Leaders Up At Night.

Image Credit: Ciron 810


Originally published at blog.15five.com on May 7, 2015.