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Emoji in the workplace

Video by Paul Puglisi

UD professor explores whether emoji can influence workplace behavior

Today is World Emoji Day, the third annual celebration of the expressive smiley faces and images that are an increasingly common part of text vernacular.

But emoji may be more than just a fun communication tool. In fact, sending and receiving emoji in the workplace could have an impact on productivity and innovation in the workplace.

University of Delaware management professor Kyle Emich, whose research explores the effects of emotions on teams and performance, answered these questions on the possibility of emoji influencing workplace behavior:

Q: How and why do emoji impact emotions? 

Emich: In our lab, we normally induce emotional states by showing people happy or sad video clips or pictures. For example, we show students a video of a dancing dog and hippo to make them feel happy. There is no reason why receiving an emoji cannot similarly induce a happy or sad state.

People also tend to mimic what others are doing, so seeing someone else in a good or bad mood could cause you to mimic that mood through something called “affective contagion.” So, since emoji use facial expressions, they may effectively induce affect by making people feel the emotion the emoji displays.

Q: When test subjects’ mood improves, what happens to their performance?

Emich: In one study I published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, our research team gave subjects a murder mystery. Subjects came into the lab in groups of three, and each of the participants had access to clues that the other two did not. The key to solving the mystery was combining that unique information.

We found that when you’re in a good mood, you’re more likely to try to initiate your team’s communication process by asking people what information they have and creating an open environment where they’re more likely to share information. And if you share information, you’re likely to solve the mystery.

Q: So a positive mood boost could help you to collaborate more effectively?

Emich: And good moods can encourage people not just to work with others, but to help them as well, since good moods are associated with increased pro-social motivation (the desire to build social relationships). 

I visualize it like this because I used to live in New York: Someone’s walking down a city street, they get a nice message and they’re just friendlier. Or, if you’re thinking about a work problem and you’re stuck on the problem, getting a nice positive jolt can really help you to think of an answer that you haven’t thought of before since being happy is also linked with being creative.

A third way emoji may impact your mindset is by broadening it. Interestingly, in a paper I published in the journal Social Networks, my co-authors and I found evidence that this can impact how you see your social network, by making you more likely to consider people that you might not normally contact. Since emoji are already on a device that contains your entire network, they could be particularly effective for encouraging people to interact with acquaintances.

Q: What other impacts do positive mood boosts like this have?

Emich: People used to believe that feeling happy was a goal in itself, and we all know feeling happy is good. However, now we know that beyond that, a good mood has many other positive effects. This mainly stems from an increased level dopamine in your brain, which allows you to be able to connect things more quickly and to consider more elements of your environment as connected. So, you are better able to seek out a diverse set of information, connect that information and come up with creative and useful solutions.

Therefore, receiving a positive emoji, or any emoji that makes you happy, has the potential to allow you solve problems in new ways, be more helpful and be a better member of your organization.

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