Emotions are contagious: How yours impact others around you

This is a guest post by Edwin Dando. Edwin is a professional Scrum trainer with Scrum.org and a consulting manager at Assurity Consulting in New Zealand. Read more of his articles at Agile for Everyone.

You know how when you see someone smile, you smile too? Or when you see someone cry, you feel sad? Well, that’s because of an incredible phenomenon called mirror neurons. Understanding mirror neurons is a critical aspect of team development. When someone else experiences an emotion, mirror neurons light up the exact same areas of our brain, as if we were experiencing that emotion ourselves. Literally, emotions are infectious.

Mirror neurons were “discovered” by University of Parma neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti while working with a team of researchers in the 1990s. Marco Iacoboni (UCLA) built on this work, releasing an important book called Mirroring People, The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with Others. The power of mood to spread and “infect” others was described by University of New Hampshire researcher, Richard Saavedra as “one of the most robust phenomena I have ever seen, and it’s all unconscious.”

Stem cells

It turns out that people actually communicate on two different levels. The first one is the basic mechanics of communication: the content of the message, the voice tone, the body language and the context in which they were communicating. We know that approximately 7% of this communication is the content itself – the remaining 93% is made up of other factors.

But we also communicate by reading subtle nuances in the facial expressions of the person who sends the communication in an attempt to interpret his or her intentions. Intentions add a “4th dimension” to communication by triggering the exact same areas of the brain in the receiver, as if he or she was experiencing the same emotion.

For example, when I see you are clearly upset and crying, I comfort you. As you communicate with me, I see the pain in your eyes and other facial expressions. My mirror neurons trigger the exact same areas of my brain, as if I were the one upset. Through this mechanism, I can empathize with you and comfort you. The interesting thing here is that I am not just observing you; I am part of the same experience.

angel crying

So why does the brain do this?

The research is still relatively immature, but interesting progress is being made. One theory is that in order for one human to understand one another’s emotions, he or she must have actually experienced that emotion. In other words, this is the brain’s attempt at dynamically building emotional literacy in a just-in-time approach. Another theory is that this also allows us to learn about our own emotions by literally experiencing others as if they were us.

The interesting change for most of us is that traditionally our thinking has been largely based on us working as individuals that come together into groups. The reality appears as if this isn’t correct. It now appears that we are part of something much bigger and interactive, with the emotions each of us experience impacting the emotions of those around us. We are, in many ways, a collective social emotional network.

So what does this mean to you and your team?

As in my previous post on bad apples, Jim and Michele McCarthy have done some key work in defining the impact of team dynamics on product development. This has led them to the pattern Team = Product. Literally, a poorly performing team builds a poorly performing product. And a highly performing team is more likely to build a great product.

Combine this with the mirror neuron findings and we can immediately see the transitive relationship; the emotions of individuals impact the team, which impacts the product. Therefore, you could extend the McCartys’ work to say Emotions = Product.

Emotional Branding

The “action understanding” hypothesis of mirror neurons believes that mirror neurons are the basis for our ability to understand others’ actions, through their intentions. This in turn leads to team members being able to better understand why someone is being difficult, belligerent, withdrawn, dominant, etc.

Of course, like anything complex, there is no simple answer. Relationships are complex and built upon many dimensions, including values and beliefs. However, mirror neurons appear to play a significant role in connecting with other humans. It appears that they are the core communication infrastructure upon which values and beliefs flow. Or, as Louise Altman said in her wonderful article The Mirror in Us: Mirror Neurons & Workplace Relationships – think of mirror neurons as the hard drive, and values and beliefs as the software that run on it.

So, how could you apply this knowledge to your teams?

One way is to help the team be mindful of how team members own behavior impacts others in the team. If a team member is behaving negatively, then not only will the other team members behave negatively back, but they will take on that behavior towards other team members, as well. As per my previous post, one bad apple can upset the entire cart.

Another way is to encourage team members to focus on the intentions of people who are communicating with them. Mirror neurons naturally help us do this, so why not leverage it?

Another way to apply this is the glass-half-full mindset. Good behaviors are also highly contagious. Joy spreads joy. Compassion spreads compassion. Support breeds support. So have a positive attitude in everything you do. You might be surprised by what changes.

And this is why leadership becomes such a critical aspect on Agile projects. Behaviors are values in action and the leader’s job is to demonstrate the values as behaviors in everything he or she does. Through the contagious nature of mirror neurons, these behaviors spread to the group and individual level, building upward spirals of behaviors.

So, allow me to finish with a call to all leaders: How are you going about living your values in front of your people, every day, in everything you do? If you want change in your organization then as a leader you need to live the values you seek as behaviors and let mirror neurons do some of the hard work of pollinating your teams. Can you do this?

Dalai Lama


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