The Ripple Effect at Work

“Contagion will seep through almost any coordinated collection of people.”

When I first came upon that sentence, I had to stop and read it again. It’s from Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, a book about the neuroscience underpinning our social interactions. As evidence for his statement, he cited “simulations done in a now-classic study at Yale University.”

I had never heard of the study, so I looked it up. 

The Ripple Effect Study

The full title is “The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and Its Influence on Group Behavior.” The study was done by Sigal Barsade, and published in the Administrative Science Quarterly in 2002.

Participants were put in a room and told to act as managers on a salary committee that would allocate a pool of bonus money to their employees. There was no single leader in the group, but rather each person was representing a candidate from their division. They were give two “mixed-motive goals”:

  1. to obtain as large a bonus as possible for their candidate and 
  2. to aid the committee to make the best use of the available funds and maximize the benefit to the company as a whole.

What no one knew was that there was a seasoned actor in each group whose assignment was to be confrontational and downbeat in some groups and helpful and upbeat in others. The question was: how would the mood and energy of one participant affect the other members? How would it affect the process and the outcomes?

The results

I have been in exactly this situation, sitting in a room with colleagues allocating a bonus pool or deciding on promotions. It was supposed to be a systematic process based on each individual candidate’s merit. But in reality it was always a complex human calculus based on social capital (who had more influence) and aggression. My own experience was that these meetings could quickly become contentious and unproductive.

“This study showed that emotional contagion does occur in groups and inasmuch as emotional contagion changes people’s moods and serves as affective information, people are “walking mood inductors,” continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others.”

Importantly, the contagion wasn’t limited to negative feelings. The study showed that “positive contagion” improved not only how the participant’s felt but also affected their process and their performance.

“There was a significant influence of emotional contagion on individual-level attitudes and group processes. As predicted, the positive emotional contagion group members experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.”

Daniel Goleman summarized it this way: 

“The feelings that pass through a group can bias how all the group members process information and hence the decisions they make.”

Like a pebble in a pond

The subtitle of Social Intelligence is “The Revolutionary New Science of Human Relationships.” The field of social neuroscience is providing evidence for what you may have already understood intuitively: how we approach work can influence how the people around us work and feel.

How might you apply this new science in your next meeting? How might you spread ripples of positive behavior at work, at home, and throughout your life?