Leadership and Emotional Contagion

“Employees are not emotional
islands. Rather, they continuously spread their own moods and receive
and are influenced by others’ moods. When they work in groups, they
literally can catch each others’ emotions like viruses, a phenomenon
known as emotional contagion.”
Wharton @ Work, University of Pennsylvania


In the past decade, there has been an important finding in neuroscience that should impact on how every leader leadsemotions are contagious.

One aspect of the research has been
to examine the emotional impact of “bosses” on those who work for them –
the power of mood to spread and “infect” others. “It is one of the most robust phenomena I have ever seen,” said University of New Hampshire researcher, Richard Saavedra, and it’s all unconscious.”

In 2005, Saavedra and his colleagues
at Cal State University at Long Beach examined the effects of leader’s
moods on groups.  189 volunteer undergraduates were selected and divided
into 63 groups of three and told they were participating in a team
building exercise.

Before the exercise, a “leader”
chosen from each team was shown one of two video clips — “Saturday Night
Live” skits or a vignette on torture — designed to induce a positive or
negative mood. All team members’ moods were measured before and after
the task.

The results were definitive.  Leader’s moods permeated the groups – and “negative” moods trumped the positive. 

“Because employees pay
great attention to their leaders’ emotions, leaders can strongly
influence the mood, and thus attitudes and performance, of their teams
through emotional contagion.”
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How Emotional Contagion Works

There is
significant research showing how emotions influence memory, perception
and cognition. These factors influence every aspect of an employee’s
performance – in fact – what is “performance” other than the combination
of thought, feeling and behavior?

When people
are “infected” by the moods of others, especially their leaders, it
impacts everything from their beliefs to the decisions they make. 
Professor Sigal Barsade, a pioneer researcher in emotional contagion
(Wharton School of Business) refers to those under the influence of
emotional contagion as walking mood inductors.”  

Professor Barsade’s research began from a direct experience with a co-worker.  Journalist Marina Krakovsky writes: “Years
ago, shortly before Professor Barsade went to graduate school, she
worked in a group that included a curmudgeonly, crabby coworker. Since
Barsade wasn’t working closely with “Crabby,” she assumed this woman had
no effect on her life. That is, until Crabby went on vacation. The
group became a much more sociable and pleasant place to be,” recalls
Barsade. Then, when she returned the next week, everybody got uptight
again. “I remember how striking it was. It wasn’t that she was telling
us what to do, but just the way she was in the workplace that was
influencing others.”

Barsade says that the experience led directly to her research into “emotional contagion,” the transfer of
moods among people in a group. Emotional contagion and other emotional
effects interested Barsade because they helped explain phenomena that,
on the surface, may not seem rational.

Ms. Krakovsky also points out, “Emotion and reason have classically been seen as opposing forces,
and the insight that changing your thoughts can change your feelings
forms the basis of a popular form of psychotherapy. But the true
relationship between thoughts and feelings is far more complex. Not only
can thoughts lead to feelings (good or bad), but feelings also lead to
thoughts and actions, which can feed off each other.” According to Professor Barsade, “Emotions and reason are completely intertwined.”

 Groups Have Emotions Too


Little research has been done on the implications of “group emotions” in the workplace.
It’s logical to assume though, based on what we are starting to
understand about the effects of emotional contagion, that groups within a
workplace are reflecting the influences of key emotional players within
their culture.

studies show that all emotions can be “spread,” so-called negative
emotions seem to dominate over other feelings. This makes sense, because
emotions like fear and anger activate the “fight or flight” mechanism
in the amygdala, gripping our physiological process.

New York University neuroscientists have
recently received a grant from National Alliance for Research on
Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSD) to examine how fears are passed
from generation to generation.  Existing research has found that babies
are especially sensitive to parental negative emotions. For that reason,
children of parents who suffered emotional trauma would be particularly
vulnerable to a parent’s anxious behavior in response to cues reminding
them of the trauma.

Studies like this are important
because we can begin to extrapolate this information to understand its
implications in workplace relationships and settings.  Because of the
power many bosses have within their domains of influence, they can
trigger the emotions (negative and positive) that workers feel (often latent) toward role models and parental figures

Freedom from Emotional Contagion 

While it is easy to get caught in the
grip of emotional contagion (example: road rage) ultimately we can
exercise choice over our emotional responses.

“In general, the key is awareness,” says Cal State researcher Saavedra, “The most insidious aspect of a negative mood is that, often, it infects you unconsciously.
If you realize, ‘This person is depressed. I’m catching his mood. That
is why I’m depressed,’ you can manipulate it. You can control it.”

For this reason, making people aware
of the phenomena of emotional contagion is crucial.   It is important to
understand that when we expose ourselves to the mood of leaders and
co-workers who are unconsciously acting out feelings like anger,
hostility and fear it can have toxic effects on our well-being – and our

Emotional contagion can work both
ways.  Fear can spread – as well as enthusiasm or confidence or hope. 
This is why it’s critical for leaders to understand they can use the
hard-wired power of mood contagion in creating a positive emotional
climate for those around them.   These conscious (authentic) efforts to
infuse workplace relationships with positive feelings can impact every
aspect of performance.

When leaders learn to consciously
manage their own emotions and understand the emotional triggers of
others, they can become a potent force for good within the workplace.  

As long as management and leaders still cling to shibboleths like “there is no place for emotions in the workplace” we’ll still be subject to harsh and toxic cultures that are inherently anti-productive.

Enlightened 21st century leaders will
increasingly harness the knowledge of emerging brain science to
understand the whole-brain perspective of human dynamics.   And as they
do, it will transform work as we know it.

What is your experience of
emotional contagion in the workplace? How have your managers and
workplace cultures impacted you and your work?

 As always, your comments, questions, subscriptions, tweets and shares (whew) are much appreciated. 

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Partners

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