Your Emotions at Work Are Contagious

Without realizing it, leaders can pass along their feelings, positive or negative, to their team members, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

As a leader, you do your best to make your team work: you keep them focused and working towards their objectives, managing their workloads, and reporting up the ladder their successes towards strategic initiatives.

But it takes more than closely controlled timelines that get deliverables done on schedule.

Consider the emotional work of leadership. While leaders might have direct control over the day-to-day responsibilities of their direct reports, they also have a major impact on the group's collective emotional condition.

I remember observing Brad and his team. He explained that they seemed jumpy and nervous around him. They were on their guard and he was struggling to build rapport. He was surprised, because he couldn't recall any incident that would have caused this group reaction. He'd never lashed out or been confrontational, so why were his employees acting like they were afraid of him?

Our emotions arise in our brains from the dynamics of several structures that collectively make up the limbic system. Unlike many systems in our body that are either closed loops—like the circulatory system—or sequential—like the digestive system—neuroscientists regard the limbic system as an open loop. It responds to stimulus outside the body and tunes itself accordingly.

Think of a child who is crying because a dog chewed her baseball. She is upset because she can't play with her toy and was startled by the dog. She is also likely to stay upset until a parent comforts her. If another child sees her crying before she is comforted, he might begin crying too. The open loop mechanism of the limbic system means emotions can be contagious.

This can happen at the office, too. Brad's employees confirmed that he hadn't lost his temper with any of them. However, when I watched Brad interact with them, especially in group settings, I saw that his own anxiety was contagious. He came off as nervous, avoiding eye contact and shifting uncomfortably. Because he was their boss and everyone was taking cues from him, many of his employees unconsciously followed his lead.

This contagion from leader to team was identified by Sigal Barsade in a series of studies when she was at the Yale School of Management. She found that if a team leader was in a negative mood, team members caught that mood and their performances tanked. If the leader was upbeat, members became energized and performance shot up.

Brad hadn’t a clue that his team was mirroring his own emotional state. A 360-degree assessment and working with a coach versed in Emotional Intelligence competencies could help to address these blind spots.

The infectious nature of emotions through the open loop of the limbic system can also have meaningful positive impacts on team dynamics. To tap into these benefits, it can be helpful for a leader to be emotionally self-aware and a sender of the more positive feelings. This underrated emotional intelligence competency can help any manager more realistically view, understand, and respond to the impacts his or her emotions have on the group.

Brad's challenges with his team weren’t inevitable. Working with a coach helped him become more aware of how he projected his own emotions and their impacts on his team. As he relaxed his team did too.


Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.