Low morale is contagious—but active listening can cure the sickness

Negativity is contagious.
Negativity is contagious.
Image: AP Photo/Keystone, Fabrice Coffrini
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Several years ago, I was working on a team saddled with a pessimistic manager. He bullied and disparaged his employees and created a cold, unfriendly environment. When the supervisor went away on business, I experienced a palpable difference in the office. My co-workers and I were happier, chattier, and overall more relaxed than usual. Of course, when the unpleasant actor returned, we all tensed up again, and our spirits plummeted accordingly.

Most people probably have experience working at an organization with similarly low morale. Employees cry in bathroom stalls, brood through meetings, and complain about their bosses in whispers by the coffee machine. The more frustrated people feel, the less inspired they are to do good work, and productivity and creativity plummet accordingly.

Organizations can’t afford to ignore the problem and hope it gets better on its own. Instead, they need to understand that low morale is often an issue of emotional contagion—a virus that spreads from one person to another as quickly as the flu.

The spiral of negativity

Sigal Barsade, a professor of management at the Wharton School of Business, has searched for the core of this Bad Apple Syndrome. Her research on emotional contagion in groups shows that just one person’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions can spread in a number of surprising and damaging ways.

Consider offices that grapple with the problem of poor work ethic. Writing on social and emotional learning in his book Focus, the psychologist Daniel Goleman finds that one person with a poor work ethic can introduce a kind of social virus to an otherwise cohesive and well-functioning system.

The issue lies with the fact that team members are often dependent on one another. A person with a poor work ethic triggers a natural move among the other group members to restore balance. If my co-worker isn’t worried about finishing the project on time, the thinking goes, I’ll scale back too. And so teammates collectively, and often unconsciously, reduce their contributions all around. This behavior can then easily spread from one team to another, resulting in a cascade of problematic behavior across a company.

We see other examples of the Bad Apple Syndrome in the form of contagious stress. If the person sitting within eyeshot of you is biting his nails, for instance, odds are you’ll sense, and may even express, the stress associated with that behavior too. Now consider working in an environment in which dozens of co-workers are expressing overt symptoms of stress, spreading feelings of defeat, inferiority, humiliation, frustration, sorrow, anguish, and shame to others in their purview.

Among the more damaging symptoms of stress is the social contagion of burnout, taking the form of physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and a decided lack of personal agency. Responsible for up to half of all employee attrition, burnout wrecks havoc on productivity, recruitment, and training costs.

Contracting burnout is as simple as working alongside coworker who is chronically fatigued, edgy, depressed, or quick to anger. Seeing symptoms of burnout lowers our usual threshold for withstanding the stressors of working long hours and taking on exceedingly heavy workloads.

Inoculating against bad apples

The more quickly that leaders act to address Bad Apple Syndrome, the better the odds of heading off a potential epidemic. To treat an impending outbreak, leaders should remove the source, as well as train managers to watch for telltale signs of trouble. The quicker a team treats an occurrence, the better.

Another strategy, according to Barsade, is to cultivate what she calls companionate love, a type of kindness among employees based on warmth, affection, and connection.   In several studies, she tracked caring, compassion, and tenderness among employees in biopharmaceutical companies, technology firms, financial services, higher education facilities, real estate businesses, travel companies, and public utility plants. Not only was kindness contagious among work peers, but also it spread by up to three degrees of separation. Companionate love led to measurable upticks in workplace satisfaction, lower absenteeism, fewer cases of interpersonal conflict, and less stress.

Spreading companionate love through intentional kindness simply requires managers and other influential people at an organization to be aware of the emotional culture around us, beginning with how we treat others. Above all, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of a genuine smile, a message of support, or an offer to talk.

To stop the spread of poor work ethic, companies can also look to the social contagion effect of charismatic leadership. A manager or CEO’s positive and emotionally attuned leadership style – sometimes referred to as contagious zeal –is persuasive and can also be a vital factor in the triumph or failure of a venture.

In his book Reviving Work Ethic, Eric Chester highlights the transmissible characteristics of a contagious zeal—things like positive energy, professional attire, ambition, integrity, and gratitude. To spread these qualities, for instance, leaders at Google famously host weekly all-hands meetings, encouraging employees to ask questions directly to the company’s executives—which in turn promotes a culture of transparency and individual empowerment. Zappos’ leaders emphasize treating all employees as equals and active listening.

In fact, leaders who possess the ability to control and express their emotions well and thoughtfully handle interpersonal relationships remain the most successful at aligning teams and spreading zeal. Charismatic leaders are particularly good at listening deeply and responding to what others feel, say, and do.  Their gauge for interpretation is also highly accurate.  They tune into what someone else feels and thinks with stunning exactness. In so doing, they have a remarkable ability to pass along contagious zeal, impart their ambition to others, and inspire pride.

Lastly, to boost office morale, don’t underestimate the curative and power of contagious happiness, according to Nicholas Christakis, a Yale sociologist, and James Fowler, a professor of political science and medicine at the University of California, San Diego. Their 20-year longitudinal study found that happiness moves easily across social networks, and that every happy individual in one’s social network increases a person’s chances of catching happiness by 9%.

Creating a happier workplace starts with identifying unhappy employees, addressing the roots of their grievances, and openly addressing any workplace conflict rather than burying it. Also, leaders who empower their teams, adopt a policy to recognize efforts, demonstrate respect, and celebrate successes find teams reaping the benefits of contagious happiness which include strengthening a company’s bottom line, fielding fewer employee sick days, and less turnover.

With helpful and harmful social contagions impacting the workplace, human connection can be an effective vaccine against the Rotten Apple Contagion.