That chimes with research by Jim Harter, chief scientist for workplace management and wellbeing at US analytics firm Gallup, who has studied worker engagement across the US during the pandemic. He says there are three types of workers: people who are ‘engaged’, who both like the job and perform well; people who are ‘not engaged’, who may not like the work, but still show up and perform; and ‘actively disengaged’, who both dislike the job and don’t perform (and in fact, actively look for a new job).
Harter says those who are actively disengaged spread that disengagement to others, particularly those in the ‘not engaged’ group.
This means a colleague’s griping can worm its way into your brain, even if you’re not actually unhappy in your job. “The more you hear it, the more you start thinking about it yourself,” adds John Trougakos, associate professor of management at the University of Toronto. They plant the seed in your mind and in others’ minds; soon enough, multiple people could have the same negative opinion.
“There’s strength in numbers,” says Trougakos. “When you have two, three or four people saying the same thing to you, it strengthens [the spread of dissatisfaction]. People get locked into the mindset.”
Having lots of friends at work doesn’t necessarily insulate you from the spread of negative opinions. Harter says while workplace friendships can help keep engagement up, they can also be a potential vector for grumbling. “These social connections can either be gripe sessions – people take their discontent and spread it – or people can stay together, and be very innovative,” he says, banding together to come up with solutions to make things better.
Kakkar points out, however, that emotions or sentiments are particularly catching when the person communicating them is someone you see as influential, either personally or professional; complaints from a charismastic team leader or the office star performer will likely have a wider effect.
And working from home isn’t a barrier to the spread of negativity.
“If you go to a meeting in person, and you see half the people pulling out their laptops and doing all kinds of other work during the meeting – that’s a symbol for disengagement,” says Terri Kurtzberg, professor of business at Rutgers University, US. Likewise, “if you’re on a Zoom call, and people just don’t bother turning their camera on, and don’t really answer questions and you don’t even really know if they’re really there – you’re going to take that as a sign of disengagement” – and will be more likely to osmose that feeling of disengagement in your own behaviour.