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Contagious Behaviours in the Workplace

By Greg Pritchett, Managing Director, Marval

I read an interesting report recently about stress in the workplace (“Preventing stress: Promoting positive manager behaviour”) by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which highlighted the importance of line managers in managing stress within their teams. According to this report, managers play a pivotal role in effective stress management, and they need “to demonstrate the skills and behaviours that allow them to manage their staff in ways that minimise work-related stress”.

Which got me thinking about behavioural contagion. I am not an expert in the psychological aspects of it (or any other cognitive psychology matter), but I do understand behavioural contagion as a type of social influence. The truth is, stress can become a serious wound in a work environment. Having been (for almost thirty years now) the manager of a rather large and diverse team, which includes different personalities and social styles, I've seen individuals, teams and departments being affected by stress in various ways. Lots of productivity is lost through it; not just through absenteeism but due to negative energy, the inability to focus on work, or even substandard performance. Stress can impact crucial performance metrics and cultural aspects as well, like behaviour, collaboration and engagement. Unfortunately, it is highly contagious and, unless managed effectively, it can be toxic and damaging for people, teams and organisations.

Work-related stress can be trigged by change, particularly when the change is ongoing or deeply affecting people’s work. With many organisations working on business transformation projects, stress levels within teams can be both high and highly contagious, requiring effective management to minimise their impact to the team.

An aspect that is often overlooked (although crucial in people management) is the positive effect of transformational leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Transformational leaders are blessed with passion and vision, and have the ability to share it and use it to inspire their team. They are determined to involve people in the transformation process, by asking them to be an active part of it instead of watching from a distance. This way, not only they ensure people’s understanding and engagement, but also manage to reduce stress within their team by helping people see the big picture and the importance of their contribution to the transformation project.

Because in the workplace, nothing is more contagious than genuine enthusiasm and passion. I believe enthusiasm and passion are major driving forces within a team; people who have these qualities tend to distil positive energy, excitement and inspiration. They lead by example and help their team members focus on overcoming stress, being productive and driving results. When enthusiastic people are assigned the leader’s role, teams tend to thrive.

Behavioural contagion can influence the social elements of a team, and that doesn’t apply to the negative behaviour only, but to the positive one as well. By employing passionate and energetic leaders, organisations can manage their business transformation challenges more effectively, ensuring their teams are motivated to embrace change; inspired by the new and ready to engage with it and make a real impact.


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