Many years ago I worked in the intensive care unit of a psychiatric ward at Mercy Hospital. Armed lightly with my newly minted bachelor’s degree in psychology, my task was to be a custodian of psychotics, suicidal depressives and bipolar sufferers. Once in a while we’d get a patient experiencing drug-induced hallucinations.
The therapeutic regimen was dictated by the psychiatry staff. The nurses administered the drugs, took the blood draws and evaluated the patients’ physical state. The psychiatric technicians were responsible for herding the patients to and fro, bed checks, behavioral notes, emergency first-aid and adding muscle when a patient “acted out,” so to speak. The techs were specifically precluded from applying any counseling, although it was impossible not to have a certain effect on the patient population, simply by interacting with them. And I did.
Never one to automatically and unthinkingly follow rules, I found that by engaging as a human being, as an equal, with the patients, they were much easier to deal with. They also tended to simply get better when another person (especially a staff member) spoke to them like they were deserving of respect.
I truly cared about them as people. The patients were going through horrendous experiences and were beyond the point where they could take care of themselves in the “normal” world or they wouldn’t be admitted to our ward.
I had the graveyard shift — 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. The activity on that shift was itself bipolar. Either patients were asleep, or they were experiencing an “episode”. The graveyard shift got all the difficult admissions as well. You don’t get admitted to a mental ward after midnight unless your life has gone seriously amok.
One night, we must have had three or four disturbed people admitted. Each one took its toll on my equanimity. A manic patient wouldn’t go to bed, wanted to talk to everybody about his plans to complete medical school in one year, open a clinic in Zimbabwe and go on a speaking tour for the United Nations on Third World health care practices.
One of our suicidal depressives had barred his door with a chair and we feared he was attempting to take himself out somehow. After we broke down the door and carried him like a rolled carpet to the padded room for safe isolation, I returned to the nurse’s station to write the file notes.
As I entered the station, there were two nurses and two other techs there. I said, “I just don’t like how this shift is going! We have people bouncing off the walls! We never have enough staff for nights like this! The paper clip dispenser is missing! And another thing…”
I was clearly agitated.
One of the nurses calmly looked up from her note writing and said, “Stan, you seem to be the only one who’s agitated.”
I looked around and saw that everybody else, who had all experienced exactly what I had, were calm, methodically completing tasks, sipping coffee. I realized that she was absolutely right. I had become emotionally affected by the other patients.
I say “other” patients, because what had happened was that I identified so closely with the patient population, I was becoming one of them. I was adopting a manic state. As soon as the nurse said that to me, all my energy just released and I immediately regained my composure.
After that night, I did some research and found a decent body of evidence to indicate that emotions are behaviorally infectious. When one person is strongly emotional, others can begin to mirror that emotion, or a strong one in another direction. People with a high degree of empathy are more likely to be “infected” in this manner.
This is a useful principle to keep in mind as we may attempt to lead people in an organization. If someone is angry and upset, they will often find another person with whom they have a friendship based on mutual support, so that they can “dump” their emotions onto that person.
They can even communicate to their friend in a way that puts the friend in the position of the person with whom they have a difficulty: “And then she said (blah blah blah)! And I (should have) said (blah blah blah)!” By expressing it to their friend, they get the feeling of having actually said what they should have said to the person to whom they should have said it.
The recipient of the emotional dump begins to receive the emotions as their own. They can feel frustrated and indignant. Or become emotionally suppressed, just as if someone were really yelling at them.
Positive emotions are also infectious. It is quite possible to send a humorous virus around a group of people. It is possible to send a compliment to one person, who then later compliments someone else, and the cycle proceeds. However, negative emotions are more infectious than positive ones, because the human animal is predisposed to response to threats, rather than to messages that “everything is fine.”
Choose your emotions. Behave as you want to feel. As the famed psychologist Morita said, “You cannot think your way into right acting. But you can act your way into right thinking.” And leaders have the responsibility to choose their own behavior, so that they only spread beneficial infections.
Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org