Dr. Steve Ingham


Emotional contagion – how are you infectious?

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In the realm of sports performance, the pursuit of excellence goes beyond physical skills and strategic gameplay. Behind every successful high-performance team lies a hidden element that can greatly impact performance: emotions. Emotions are not just personal experiences; they have the potential to spread among team members like wildfire, shaping the collective mood and ultimately influencing outcomes.

We’ve all been there, in a team meeting and someone chooses to ‘pee on the fire’, by offloading all of the criticisms and problems that could go wrong or tutting and shaking their head or just not engaging. Equally, we’ve all been there in a team that is uplifting, positive and constructive…

This phenomenon is known as emotional contagion.

Understanding Emotional Contagion:

Emotional contagion ignites a spark within teams, as individuals mirror and adopt the emotions of their peers. It is a captivating phenomenon that can significantly impact team dynamics and ultimately influence performance outcomes. Whether it’s the fervour of excitement, the heat of anxiety, or the intensity of determination, emotions have the potential to spread rapidly, shaping the collective mood of the team. We do as others do – so we need to choose our responses carefully.

The Influence of Sigal Barsade:

Sigal Barsade, a trailblazing researcher in the field of organisational behaviour, has extensively explored the depths of emotional contagion. Her transformative work shows how people copy others, how negative and positive behaviours spiral others down or up, respectively.

Implications for Sports Scientists:

As sports scientists working with high-performance teams, understanding the power of emotional contagion is crucial. Let’s explore its implications:

Igniting the Emotional Climate:

  • Sports scientists have the opportunity to ignite a positive emotional climate within the team. By fostering positive emotions, facilitating strong interpersonal connections, and nurturing a supportive and inclusive environment, you can fan the flames of team camaraderie and collaboration. Take home idea: Choose positive reactions, curiosity and uniqueness – not being the mood hoover, negative and suppressing influence.

Stoking Emotional Awareness:

  • Developing emotional intelligence and awareness enables sports scientists to identify and monitor emotional contagion within the team. By recognising the spread of emotions, you can promptly intervene to mitigate the negative impact of contagious negative emotions while fuelling the diffusion of positive emotions. Take home idea: Watch teams spiral negatively and switch the focus to positives.

Fuelling Leadership Influence:

  • Emotional contagion is particularly potent when it comes to team leaders. Sports scientists can collaborate closely with leaders to help them harness the power of emotions effectively. By providing strategies to manage emotions and lead by example, by choosing your words and reactions wisely, you can not only nudge the team in the right direction, but influence up to leaders who in turn inspires and motivates the entire team. Take home message: Leadership isn’t just about leading, it means showing leader-like qualities from within a team.

Emotional contagion is a captivating phenomenon that holds immense potential for high-performance teams. Sports scientists, drawing inspiration from the groundbreaking work of Sigal Barsade, you have an opportunity on your teams to be the change agent, or in other words the person who gently optimises the team performance from within. By focusing on the positives you will be developing the emotional climate, fostering emotional awareness, fuelling leadership influence, and developing communication and motivation in teams.

Listen out for the negatives – switch the focus and be contagious!



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