Why does Negative Nellie hold such power over the workplace?

Emotional contagion of Negative Nellie

We all have examples of a Negative Nellie. The one that leaves an actual trail of negative emotional destruction in her wake. The one where people put their heads down as she walks past. Or the boss who you can hear shouting as she walks up the corridor, slamming her office door loudly behind her.

We have known that emotions are contagious for some time. Think about how you feel when someone is laughing raucously and genuinely. Even if you don’t feel it to start with, after a while, the laughter spreads.

Negative emotional contagion

It would be wonderful if all the emotions that spread were positive ones, but we also know that not all emotions are created equal. Negative emotions spread faster and more powerfully than positive ones.

By spread, I mean that we take on the emotions of other people. So Negative Nellie leaves a trail that then “infects” her workmates. The boss casts a pall all over the office, almost like a sneeze.

Largely, this is all done unconsciously. We don’t know that we are picking up other people’s emotions. Although it is interesting that if you pay attention, you can feel a physical response to some very negative people after being in their presence for a while. You might feel very tired, or just not as good as you did prior to being in the person’s presence.

The other interesting thing is that we start to mimic (again unconsciously) other people’s body language. So if there is someone who is frowning and displaying very negative body language, after a while, this gets picked up by other people in the group. And after a while, everyone is feeling a bit more down.

What does this mean?

Of course we can’t check our emotions in at the door of the workplace. If you’ve had a really bad start to the morning, it is of course likely that you will be grumpy when you arrive at work. Self awareness is the key here.

With thanks to the Wharton @ Work for these ideas on managing emotional contagion:

When you walk through the threshold of the door – check in with yourself how you’re feeling. If you’re grumpy and you know it, this is the time to fake it til you make it – plaster a smile on your face at least and be pleasant. We know from research that your mood will follow your facial expressions. So even if you don’t feel it – think of something happy and whack that smile on.

Check your body language. We know that we communicate 90% of intent through body language, facial expressions and tone, not through what we say. If you have your arms crossed, or some other form of body language that people routinely associate with negativity – think about how you can change that. If you’re rolling your eyes constantly when someone else is talking, think about what message people are reading into that.

Make eye contact. This is one of the easiest ways to manage negative emotional contagion. Smile and look someone in the eye. Pass on the positive vibes.

Manage any other Negative Nellies in the group. Call them out (in private if possible) on how their body language or emotional behaviour is perceived and impacts the group. And don’t look them in the eye in meetings; you don’t want to catch what they have!!

Finally – think about how you can create a more positive culture more generally. Obviously this doesn’t happen overnight – but it’s worth explicitly thinking about the culture and how your team experience it, and then actively looking to change it if it’s not a positive one.



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