Is Slack Messing With Your Head? 5 Ways To Avoid 'Emotional Contagion' While Messaging at Work

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Ivy Exec51
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May 25, 2024 at 3:13PM UTC

This might have been one thing we thought we gained in a forced work-from-home environment: that you’re less likely to spread your bad mood or have your colleague's spread to you if you were working at home, alone, not seeing your colleagues. But alas, we know that this ability to catch emotions happens online as well. And Slack, which functions like an ever-present work newsfeed, is not so dissimilar in what it’s done to work communications as what Facebook has done to social media. 

So is Slack messing with your head?

Emotional contagion is “the process in which an observed behavioral change in one individual leads to the reflexive production of the same behavior by other individuals in close proximity, with the likely outcome of converging emotionally” (Panksepp and Lahvis, 2011). This can happen with both negative and positive emotions.

And while emotional contagion relies mainly on facial and other non-verbal communications, it can occur via text-only communications as well. People interacting through e-mails and “chats” are affected by another’s emotions without being able to perceive facial or non-verbal cues. Take one study from Haifa and Johns Hopkins Universities, (Cheshin, Rafaeli, and Bos 2011) which showed that emotional contagion occurs even when non-verbal cues are scarce and only textual cues are present. 

Teams of coworkers were assigned a negotiation, and even only using email, “different behaviors are perceived as emotionally charged, resolute behavior interpreted as a display of anger, and flexibility as a display of happiness.” And “that incongruence between text-based communication of (negative) emotion and emotionally charged behaviors elicits negative emotion in fellow teammates.“ Just because they couldn’t see each other didn’t mean teammates weren’t passing their emotions along.

Newsfeeds are also incredibly powerful for affecting our moods. Facebook data scientists tested emotional contagion by manipulating the newsfeeds of more than 680,000 users of the platform. Some were given more positive posts and fewer negative ones, and others vice versa, with more negative and fewer positives. After analyzing more than 3 million posts, the researchers found that people exposed to fewer positive words made fewer positive posts themselves, and those exposed to fewer negative words made fewer negative posts.

What is Slack if not a workplace newsfeed? There’s no boundary between you and messages, no subject line to warn you not to open an email, no door to close to keep that annoying coworker always complaining about their kids at bay. Everything comes right at you, good and bad!

It’s important to focus on what you can do to mitigate this because obviously, you can’t always be in good spirits. And because of the limited interactions with people over video conference and email, your coworkers may overthink smaller examples of moodiness. There’s little chance of them overhearing you on the phone five minutes ago with your mother-in-law bickering about Christmas presents. Thus they can’t put two and two together to understand that the bad mood they’re picking up from your curt Slack messages or lack of emoji response to their gif is actually about something totally unrelated to work.

Five Things You Can Do to Lessen Emotional Contagion at Work

1. Acknowledge.

The first step is to acknowledge your mood and the fact that if you are down on yourself, you’ll bring those around you down as well. Just remembering that can help you to put on a more positive face. This isn’t to say you should bottle up your emotions. But there is room to take stock of a situation and proactively try to see it from a more glass-half-full perspective.

This also means acknowledging your mood to your colleagues. In a Zoom world, you must be a bit more direct about your personal mood than you might have been in person. If you are in a foul mood, tell the people around you, “Hey I’m having a rough day today. If I seem a bit gruff, it’s not you.” This can do wonders for people who are apt to think your bad mood is directed at them. It also shows you as a human being, giving you an opportunity to connect more deeply with those around you.

I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to know everything about what has brought you down. It’s not an invitation to whine and invite even more negativity. But honesty is, as they say, the best policy. Now that the corporate world is taking mental health seriously, showing that you take your own mental health seriously is a good indicator for your team. If you can, and if it’s appropriate, you may even want to take a mental health day if your mood is really awful and bound to bring the rest of the group down. And, of course, if you need to, seek help from a professional.

2. Put on a happy filter.

Research has shown that you can turn some of this around. Looking back at the Facebook newsfeed study, take advantage of these subconscious cues we are all influenced by, and look at some pictures or a comic or whatever would make you happy or put you in a positive frame before you write your next message to your colleagues. You can also cheat and reference your previously happy self by copying and pasting text from emails you wrote previously to start your text from a neutral position.

As I mentioned, positive emotions are contagious too! Studies show that in sports, when a team is generally upbeat, positive, and in an overall good mood, these positive emotions are “caught” by the individual players. And this is great for the bottom line. Results also show that when teams are happier, the athletes on the team tend to play better, according to a Sheffield University study.

3. Step back.

If you can, step back from your computer when you’re feeling in a foul mood. The more you can do to both put yourself in a better state of mind and also prevent the spread of those emotions, the better. Ideally, you’d do something to actually improve your mood—like go for a run, meditate, or dance around your desk like a maniac—because we know that this negative mood is actually affecting your competence. But if you can’t do that, the next best option is to focus on tasks that are solo work, so that you don’t spread your mood. It’s a little like wearing a mask! Put a barrier up between you and your colleagues.

4. Set boundaries.

Technology has to work for us, not the other way around. Mute channels that rile you up and that aren’t urgent and set aside time to check them. Turn off Slack if you’re working on something delicate that requires you to be on your best game emotionally. If you need to, design your workday so you’re not checking Slack at all times. Unless it’s necessary as a totally synchronous tool, try to rely on other apps to have synchronous conversations with your colleagues, like, woah, the phone!

5. Help others.

In this same vein, if someone you’re working with is riled up due to an outside force, whether office-related or not, it’s best to try and dampen those intense emotions, rather than amplify them. If they message you about something that’s bugging them or their normal messages seem a bit angry, take time to respond via message or call them on the phone to get a full picture of what’s bothering them. Don’t fan the flames with, say, flame emojis.

You can compound people’s emotions if you aren’t careful about how you reflect back to them, and that won’t lead to calm and clearheaded solutions. This is a great time to harness meditative techniques, step back, count to ten, and breathe. Ask yourself, how does my attitude make this moment better? You want to give yourself time to process complex situations, so you can make sure your reaction will help those perceiving it.

Being able to take control of your communications mediums is critical for anyone working in a digital workforce. We have amazing tools like slack at our disposal to help us convey our content and our emotions to our colleagues to both get work done and connect as humans. Being thoughtful about how we use those tools will make us happier, and more effective communicators as we go forward in this great shift to remote work.


This article originally appeared on Ivy Exec

What's your no. 1 piece of advice for avoiding emotional contagion at work? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss'ers!

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