Emotional contagion

Karen Middleton asks leaders to consider how your mood can help or hinder you and your team

CSP CEO Karen Middleton
CSP CEO Karen Middleton

I was recently in a meeting to prepare for a big event. The ‘what ifs’ were out in force: what if nobody turns up? What if people see this as just more work? What if people really don’t want to engage with this? And the list went on! And then I said ‘what if it goes really well – what on earth will we do then?’

I am sure you will have been on both sides of this conversation and, of course, both are valid, but this particular conversation got me thinking about the impact one’s mood or mindset has going into an event, meeting, or conversation.

And that very same week, the term ‘emotional contagion’ came to my attention through a book I was reviewing.

Emotional contagion is the phenomenon of having one person’s emotions and behaviours directly trigger similar emotions and behaviours in others. You may have heard the sayings ‘misery loves company’ and ‘smile and the whole world smiles with you’.

Neuroscience explains this and, essentially, there are three stages – mimicry, feedback and contagion (experience). In order to mimic someone, you first have to recognise the emotion and this usually happens through body language and the cues can be very subtle – a facial expression, a posture, a gesture. By mimicking the emotion, you may start to actually feel it. So if you are feeling anxious and the person you are listening to looks open and relaxed, you might start feeling calmer too (feedback).

Lastly, mimicking an emotion may evoke that emotion in you. It then becomes part of your experience and you express it or relate it to others in the same way – and the contagion is complete.

Now I have no doubt that, even if unconsciously, you are aware of this when it comes to working with the public, patients or clients. But are we so aware when it comes to us as leaders?

I have written before about the importance of a leader being optimistic and because of the potential of emotional contagion, it is vital to train yourself to be aware of your mood and understand the value of shifting your mindset from negative to positive.

Others will be very aware of your emotions and how you turn up will impact on their mood – positive emotions can harness energy in a team which will then impact on the work done.

I’m not suggesting for one minute that you have to be upbeat and positive all the time – authenticity is also important.

But train yourself to at least take note of how you are feeling so that you can take steps to lift your mood. Our roles are hard enough so using every tool in the box, that we have at our disposal, is critical.

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