Emotional Contagion Theory and the Consultant

09-02-19 Emily Gray

As consultants, it's important to understand how your emotions can impact your clients' emotions and, in extension, the outcome of your projects.

Does the success of bringing in consultants partially stem from the new energy they bring?

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    Emotional contagion research has shown for years how much our moods are unconsciously influenced by the people around us—and how that positively impacts our empathy and productivity. New research from the University of Connecticut shows a link between empathy and creativity. Over five separate trials, the researchers had people design solutions to problems using two different styles—one style simply had the person try to solve the problem while the other style included empathizing with the end user for 30 seconds before working on solutions. Independent judging panels consistently rated the people who empathized with the end users to have more creative solutions. “Empathizing, or thinking about someone in an emotional way, leads to more cognitive flexibility,” says Kelly Herd, a marketing professor who helped lead the University of Connecticut research. “Cognitive flexibility comes in when thinking about new ideas and new pieces of information as you brainstorm.”

    As it relates to our work, taking time to empathize with both our clients and their users allows our minds to more quickly and nimbly iterate to find a valuable solution. At Sparkbox, we’ve always felt our ability to genuinely care for our client teams is paramount to project success. This new research helps show why empathy, one of our core values, helps us effectively work with our clients and creatively deliver solutions that focus on the ultimate value for their users.

    Demonstrating Empathy for the Client’s Team

    Establishing Relationships Through Interviews

    I’ve shared before how important vulnerability is to iterative improvement. Productive vulnerability is uncomfortable and involves risk. We can’t expect client teams to be vulnerable with us right from the start. However, establishing relationships right away, showing we can be trusted with information, and displaying our own vulnerability and empathy are important first steps to encourage a team to open up. Sparkbox conducts stakeholder interviews as some of the first efforts in a Discovery. We often do these one person at a time in a private video call. We ask lots and lots of questions and wait until the end to ask some of the tougher questions, like our favorite, “What could make this project fail?”

    We make a point to empathize with the hardships that stakeholder, and the larger organization, is facing. And these interviews allow internal stakeholders to ask us any questions they have about Sparkbox or the engagement—a chance to make ourselves vulnerable too. We strive to establish trusting relationships early and to better understand both the individuals who make up the team and the issues they face. These are all good starts to fostering empathy. And taking this time to understand the teams allows us to advocate for different team members’ points of view throughout the project and have more thoughtful solutions based on the insights we’ve formed through empathetic interactions.

    Deepening Relationships Through Tough Feedback

    At Sparkbox, we are always looking to improve, so we continually keep our ears open for things that hurt. We want to identify roadblocks and hurdles that slow your team down, and we look at anything else that keeps your team from being the most effective it can be. That mindset means we’re going to have ideas that run counter to how things are being done today. We like to work side-by-side with our clients, which allows us to see a lot. We keep running lists of ideas to improve things for our clients, and we share those periodically. When we share that feedback, we aim to be honest and transparent but empathetic. Always honest, never jerks.

    This Agile Manifesto quote is a valuable mental framework to follow when delivering that kind of feedback:

    “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what was known at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” - Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews

    Business and user needs and goals change over time. The decision makers and their frame of reference change constantly. Tough feedback is not about blaming—it’s about highlighting something with the earnest hope you can make it better through discussion. Together.

    Showing Your Face

    “To understand ideas, words are key—but to understand feelings, face-to-face nonverbal cues are much more important.” - Sigal Barsade Ph.D.

    Video calls are easy enough to accommodate at this point that we prefer to have a video call with cameras turned on whenever possible. We’re always trying to honestly convey our emotions and concerns and to interpret those of the people we’re talking to. And nonverbal cues are a tremendous aid to boost that understanding.

    Demonstrating Empathy for the Client’s Users

    Empathy/Journey Mapping and Personas

    As mentioned earlier, University of Connecticut research showed that taking as little as 30 seconds to empathize with users’ situations can make a big impact on your creativity and ability to connect with them—there’s a reason we continue to use user personas. Developing user personas and other similar tools is a great investment for fostering that 30 seconds of reflection. We’ve had great results in Discoveries that include Empathy Map Canvas exercises and Journey Mapping, which can get you a clearer picture of your user.

    Once you have put in the hard work to understand a user and have created a persona or empathy map, you can reflect on that before you dive into wireframing, writing content, or designing a solution to meet their needs. The smaller inconveniences that might otherwise cause friction during brainstorming tend to melt away after we perform these exercises—empathizing greases the wheels, allowing us to push past minor fears and into valuable solutions.

    Usability Testing

    Mapping and personas can help a lot to create theoretical solutions. However, while we all work very hard to be intentional and know our users, moderated and unmoderated usability tests have proven that we always benefit from running tests with representative users. Fortunately, these do not need to be incredibly time-consuming or costly tests. Moderated testing can produce high value with even small samples.

    Chart showing how small and frequent tests are better than bigger and infrequent tests
    This graph from Ida Aalen’s “Easy & affordable user testing” talk indicates that, for moderated studies, 70% of problems will be seen in a study with three people, 80% of problems will be seen in a study with five people, and 90% of problems will be seen in a study with eight people.

    Running tests gives us an even clearer picture of what it’s like for users to navigate our solution and allows us the opportunity to better improve those experiences.

    Empathy is Contagious

    If a) emotions are contagious, and b) we bring positivity through empathy to our client teams, and c) empathy increases creativity, it stands to reason that we not only produce better, more creative work through empathizing with our clients and their users, but we enable our client teams to be more empathetic and creative as well. The fresh outlook an outside team can bring—unencumbered by failed projects or interoffice politics—can be the catalyst needed to bring about an emotional shift necessary for success.