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How To Put Emotional Contagion to Work - Part II

How To Put Emotional Contagion to Work

Catching a cold is a bad thing, but emotional contagion can be a good thing indeed. Emotional contagion is the unconscious process by which we’re influenced by the emotions of others. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, check out my previous post, Harnessing the Power of Emotional Contagion - Part I.

When you understand how emotional contagion works, it’s easy to put it to use for good: sweetening company culture, making marketing more effective and charging up your social media strategy. (Yes, you can “catch” emotions digitally.)

Is your company sad?

Everyone knows that a company’s culture is important, but changing it can seem mysterious. What can you do besides placing positive bromides in the mission statement? The answer is, show don’t tell.

Sigal Barsade and Olivia A. O’Neill, professors at Wharton School of Business, break down company culture into two parts. Cognitive culture is composed of intellectual values and assumptions, such as how competitive or customer-focused employees should be. Emotional culture is a shared understanding of which emotions can be expressed at work and which should be suppressed.

Companies often provide very detailed information about their cognitive cultures, delivered in mission statements, blog posts, the About section of the website and employee handbooks. But information about the emotional culture is delivered indirectly, according to Barsade and O’Neill, via body language and facial expressions. Because of this, they argue, a company’s emotional culture is often not managed effectively – or not at all.

A company’s emotional culture certainly can be explicit. “Emotional culture is shaped by how all employees—from the highest echelons to the front lines—comport themselves day in and day out. But it’s up to senior leaders to establish which emotions will help the organization thrive, model those emotions, and reward others for doing the same.”

In 2014, Southwest Airlines made its long-time value of “love” explicit through a redesign of its logo and airplane livery called “Heart.” It recently announced a redesign of its plane interiors and uniforms to emphasize the motif. Notably, the uniforms were designed by a team of employees working with a professional firm.


In a press release, the company said, “"Our brand, our planes, and our People are bold and modern, and the new uniform represents who our Employees are—spirited, professional, unique, and approachable."

This strategy employs emotional contagion in powerful ways. First, by wearing the cheerful and attractive outfits, employees may actually feel cheerier and more “spirited.” Second, the uniforms and décor could give customers a lift. Happier customers reflect that back at employees, increasing joy even more. And finally, allowing employees to have strong input into a decision that affects them so directly is good for morale. So-called high involvement management techniques can improve employee engagement – and productivity.

The satisfaction at least some of Southwest’s employees feel with their snazzy new uniforms could become contagious, boosting everyone’s morale while making it more likely that customers will feel the love.

What can you do every day to spread positive emotions at your workplace?

Emotional contagion and marketing

Of course, advertising uses emotional contagion all the time, with actors looking happy – even ecstatic – when using a product. Advertisers hope you’ll catch a little of that happy feeling.

There’s scientific basis for this approach. One experiment showed that people experience emotional contagion when looking at advertising. When test subjects were exposed to ads with a smiling face, they smiled as well, whereas ads with neutral expressions didn’t elicit the response. They also applied those feelings to the product that was being advertised: Ads with smiling faces increased the viewers’ purchase intention.

Two other experiments showed that emotional contagion doesn’t need to be directly related to a product or ad. Posters of celebrities that kids liked placed near displays of school supplies cause them to buy more. And the glow from watching an ad for a movie starring a favorite actor shone on the subsequent commercial for shoes. On the other hand, when subjects watched trailers for movies with actors they disliked, they liked the shoes less, too.


Adding a puppy never hurts, either.

Social = emotion

Facebook’s notorious News Feed tinkering and analysis of the Twitter stream showed how emotional contagion can spread via social media. The message for your brand or company is clear: Add a scoop of positivity.

Jamie Oetting of HubSpot recently gave some great examples of brands using the four basic emotions of happy, sad, afraid/surprised and angry/disgusted. And she notes that while all of these can be effective when used appropriately, the most-shared ad of 2015 was Android’s blissfully sweet “Friends Furever.”

See? Puppies. Other baby animals work, too.

She also notes that Unruly found the most viral ads of 2015 relied on the warm fuzzies: friendship, inspiration, warmth and happiness.

Puppies and giggles certainly aren’t appropriate for every brand, and I’m not suggesting you start pumping out gee-whiz Facebook posts. There are plenty of nuances you can invoke to get your audience and customers to catch positive emotions.

Emotional contagion begins with you

Verizon’s 2012 TV spot, “We’re All in This Together,” is a B2B commercial that shows how more reliable communications among professionals helps them in helping others. Instead of focusing on why Verizon’s offerings are better, it shows employees and customers getting things done. You don’t feel giddy after watching it, but you’re left with a bit of a warm glow – and Verizon may catch some of that warmth. How can you communicate what your company does in a way that includes emotion?

Collective Next, a consultancy that helps companies improve collaboration, uses Pinterest to illustrate the company’s values. Its “Collaboration” board has quotes about collaboration that are inspiring and challenge people to be their best. For example, one pin leads to an article from the Wall Street Journal that talks about the business value of interdependence and trust. How do the things you share via social media invoke your values and those of your company?

And finally, how does your everyday behavior help those you come in contact with feel better? We are all in this together.

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