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Emotions are contagious: how yours impact others around you

November 18, 2014

You know how when you see someone smile, you smile too? Or when you see someone crying, you feel their sadness. Well that’s because of an incredible phenomenon called mirror neurons. Understanding mirror neurons is a critical aspect of  team development as 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.  This is post 2 builds on my last post about Bad Apples

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 upon 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.”


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

But we also communicate by reading subtle nuances in the facial expressions of the person who is sending the communication in an attempt to interpret their intentions. Intentions add a “4th dimension” to communication by triggering the exact same areas of the brain in the receiver, as if they were experiencing the emotions themselves.

For example, I see you clearly upset and crying and 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 empathise with you and comfort you.  The interesting thing here is that I am not just observing you; I am part of the same experience.



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 anothers emotions, we must have actually experienced that emotion ourselves. In other words, this is the brains 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 it 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 him 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 McCarty’s work to say Emotions = Product.




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 which runs on this.

So how could you apply this knowledge with your teams?

One way is to help the team be mindful of how their own behaviour impacts others in the team.  If a team member is behaving negatively, then not only will the other team members behave negatively  back, they will take on that behaviour towards other team members also. 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 helps us do this, so why not leverage this?

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

And this is why leadership becomes such a critical aspect on agile projects. Behaviours are values in action and the leaders job is to demonstrate the values as behaviours in everything they do. Through the contagious nature of mirror neurons, these behaviours spread to the group and individual level, building upward spirals of behaviour.

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 organisation then as a leader you need to live the values you seek as behaviours and let mirror neurons do some of the hard work of pollinating your teams. Can you do this?









This post originally appeared on my blog


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