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Am I contagious? Why awareness of emotions is critical for leaders

A budding area of research is on the phenomenon of emotional contagion where our moods are transferred to those around us.

Suited Arm Carrying a Weight with a heart on left and brain on right on a teal background

We have all got used to the idea that we can spread something without even being conscious that we are infected with it, but ‘am I contagious’ is a question that we should be asking ourselves beyond the bounds of the pandemic. A budding area of research in the last couple of decades examines the role of emotions in leadership, and in particular the phenomenon of emotional contagion; the idea that our moods can be transferred to those around us.

Various scholars (e.g. Professor Sigal Barsade of University of Pennsylvania) have found that through mimicry of facial expressions, body language and tone of voice, our mood and emotion can be picked up and emulated by others around us. Furthermore, we have mirror neurons in our brains that are designed to do exactly what it says on the tin: mirror others and their emotions.

Why does this matter?

It is important because when we lead a team, the effects of positive emotion are hugely impactful. We know that positive emotions can broaden our thinking and awareness. Research reports that things that are useful to organisations - like creativity, curiosity, performance and good team dynamic - are all enhanced when we are in a more positive frame of mind (Shawn Achor calls this the ‘happiness advantage’). Negative emotions, on the other hand, tend to close down our thinking and behaviours. They lead us into survival mode where our instinctive response to negative events is ‘fight or flight’ rather than long-term thinking. When negative emotions dominate in the workplace there is a deficit of the creativity, curiosity and constructive behaviours that are conducive to good work.

Building your EQ

This does not mean that we should shut out negative emotion entirely. An effective leader needs to be aware of their circumstances and act accordingly. This is where emotional intelligence plays a role. Emotional intelligence is about our ability to perceive and understand our own and others’ emotions and use that knowledge wisely. The cornerstone of emotional intelligence, or EQ as it is known, is emotional self-awareness. We cannot usefully leverage emotion if we cannot accurately perceive it.

Another important facet of EQ is emotional regulation; our ability to control our emotions and how we express them in a way that is appropriate to our circumstances. A leader high in emotional intelligence will be able to diagnose a situation and regulate their emotional responses accordingly. As the last two years have shown us there will be times when a more serious and sombre mood is the one to transmit.

So, how can you start to use this knowledge?

The first step in using your emotions wisely is to try to become more emotionally self-aware. Deliberately reflecting on your own experiences is key to this. It can help you understand your emotional triggers and responses and how you express emotion so that you can take steps to limiting any negative impact on your team.

When you understand your own responses better a three-word slogan ‘Hands, Face, Space’familiar from the UK Government’s press conferences on COVID, can help you with your strategy to limit the damage of contagion:

Hands – take your emotions in hand. Recognise when you are having an emotional response, pause and consciously remind yourself that you are in control of your emotions, not the other way around.

Face – the way we outwardly convey emotion is perceived by those around us. So, if you want to make sure you don’t spread negative emotion – fake it ‘til you make it with your face and tone.

Space – if you know you struggle with faking it – remove yourself from the situation. Give your team space rather than potentially spreading your negativity on them.

Learn more about Emotional Intelligence

Dr Ali Budjanovcanin is leading a short, two-day course on emotional intelligence (EQ) as part of our executive educational offering. This course is designed for anyone who works with other people and wants to improve their working relationships and impact, regardless of whether you are a manager or not. You will apply what you learn to your own context and practice using your new tools to enhance your success.

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Alexandra Budjanovcanin

Alexandra Budjanovcanin

Senior Lecturer in Work Psychology and Public Sector Management