Emotional Contagion in the Electronic Communication Context: Conceptualizing the Dynamics and Implications of Electronic Emotional Encounters in Organizations

Article excerpt


Advancements in communication technology constantly change organizational functioning in many ways. One of the aspects these changes bring about is an emergence of individual and reciprocal emotional encounters online in ways that differ from those typically observed in face-to-face settings. In this paper I analyze the existing research on this topic and build a theoretical model of emotion transfer in the electronic communication context in organizations. In particular, drawing on a social contagion theory (Levy & Nail, 1993; adapted for electronic communication exchange by Thompson & Nadler, 2002), I propose a conceptual model of dyadic emotional contagion in the online context and address several key factors that may influence this process and its outcomes. The paper concludes with some guidelines for operationalization and empirical testing, as well as a brief discussion of limitations and theoretical and practical implications of the proposed model.


Electronic communication at work is a relatively new social phenomenon that contributes importantly to organizational behavior. Research has confirmed that in the last decade alone, electronic communication has changed organizational practices in all areas of business from medicine to manufacturing to education to management practices (e.g., Keil & Johnson, 2002; Kraut, Brynin, & Kiesler, 2006; Martins & Kellermanns, 2004; Spielberg, 1998). However, what is less known in the literature is how the new work environment changed both emotional and relational aspects of individual interaction in the modern workplace. As recent research has emphasized (Carley, 2002: 226), "emotions may become critical for organizations of the future, where personnel are more distributed and more work is outsourced." In this paper, I make an attempt to draw scholars' attention to the importance of individual emotional processes and outcomes in organizations with regards to electronic communication realm by building a conceptual model that explores the dynamics and the outcomes of emotion transfer in the electronic context. By doing so, I am not only acknowledging that organizations are emotional entities and that emotions play a critical role in multiple organizational processes and outcomes, but also that new technology at work (namely, electronic mail) stimulates individual emotional encounters and behavioral responses in a different way from those typically observed in face-to-face settings. Specifically, drawing on a social contagion theory (Levy & Nail, 1993; adapted by Thompson and Nadler (2002) for emotional interactions in the electronic communication context), I aim to shed some light on the topic of emotional contagion by reviewing an existing research in this area and proposing a new theoretical model that will hopefully help scholars and practitioners alike to better understand the specifics individual emotional transfer in electronic communication settings.


In this paper I define emotions as specific occurrences that are identified with or directed towards particular stimuli. They are relatively high in intensity and short in duration and can disrupt ongoing thought processes (Barry, 1999; Frijda, 1993; Forgas, 1992). Research in psychology has mostly studied mood states and emotions along two dimensions: valence (positive-negative direction of affect) and arousal (high-low intensity of affect- see Russell, 1979; Watson & Tellegen, 1985). I call the process of emotion transfer from one individual to another an "emotional contagion process" and employ the definition of social contagion proposed by Levy & Nail (1993). In particular, "in its broadest sense, social contagion is defined as the spread of affect, attitude, or behavior from Person A (the "initiator") to Person B (the "recipient"), where the recipient does not perceive an intentional influence attempt on the part of the initiator" (Levy & Nail, 1993: 226). …