When I think about emotional contagion, I think about yawning.
There–you just yawned, didn’t you?
Much to the delight of kids throughout the ages, the act of yawning is probably the most universally recognized as wickedly contagious for seemingly no good reason. You look at someone yawning, you yawn. You think of someone yawning, you yawn. You can’t help it. And if you try not to yawn, the impulse just gets worse.
It turns out that emotions function in almost exactly the same way, and are just as contagious. Emotional contagion is the spontaneous transfer of emotions from one person to another or through a group. It was first written about back in 1897 by American psychologist James Baldwin, who called the phenomenon “contagion of feeling.”
Throughout the past century, it was studied in countless ways, and in 1993, psychologists Elaine Hatfield, John Cacioppo, and Richard Rapson pinned down the concept as it as “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person’s and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”
Picking up the bad vibes
So, to put it simply, when someone in a bad mood enters your sphere, you suddenly find yourself in a bad mood, too. The reverse can happen just as easily: An upbeat and positive mood can quickly create a room filled with good moods.
One of the leaders I coach, Lauren, saw this firsthand when the tenor of her workplace suddenly shifted: an oddly biting comment from a coworker, the next day a whisper behind her back from another, then a direct report quit, citing a lack of fulfillment.
Lauren wasn’t sure what had happened. She used to love her colleagues, but now, everything felt different. As we dug into the situation, we discovered she was seeing the visible effects of her stress. With the leadership team of the organization stuck in a downward spiral of competitiveness and mistrust, many of the leaders and their own teams were beginning to mirror its effects in their work and interactions. Their stress was becoming contagious.
Everyone felt the bad vibes Lauren had (unknowingly) been putting out. Productivity dipped; engagement was evaporating. The energy of the workplace had taken a sharp dive, like bubbles dissipating from a can of soda left to go flat.
Teams will mirror their leader
What Lauren’s story illustrates is that a team will pick up on each others’ negativity, anxiety, and stress—and with no one is this more true than with the team’s leader. With every moment of your interactions with the people you lead, you have the opportunity to create a ripple effect with your outlook and emotional state. You have the power to use emotional contagion to the benefit of everyone around you. A leader’s prevailing demeanor permeates an entire company.
High-level leaders full of optimism inspire the same from their mid-level reports, who then pass it along to the people below them. Before long, the sense of possibility cascades through an organization, activating a high-performing, highly fulfilled, motivated, and energetic culture.
The effect of leadership—both good and bad—is observable and quantifiable. A Gallup study found that the vast majority of an individual’s engagement at work is driven by their manager. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, coined a phrase that describes the relationship between employee and leader: a “vertical couple.”
When the bond between the vertical couple is strong, the employee’s productivity rises. They’re more engaged; they’re less likely to look for another role elsewhere.
Authenticity is the key
So, if leaders are responsible for the emotional contagion in their workplace, what should they look to spread? The answer is authentic connection. Strongly bonded, optimistic, and authentic relationships with your team members will allow you to discover and focus on their strengths, spot and celebrate wins, provide meaningful feedback, and listen to understand.
Your job as a leader is to craft authentic connections with the people you lead. After all, leadership is connection. Done right, connection is one of the most powerful tools in your leadership toolkit. Done wrong, though, it only serves to reinforce the walls people build around themselves that make communication and collaboration more challenging. The key differentiator between approaching connection the right way and wrong way is authenticity.
So, where does authenticity begin? I recommend taking three actions.
Create magic in moments, not meetings
The interstitial space between meetings is where so much personal connection magic in the workplace happens. As I write this, many of us are back at work in person, and that personal connection piece becomes a little simpler, but still just as intentional.
Get to meetings early so you can soak up the chitchat. Offer your next one-on-one to take a quick stretch-your-legs walk in lieu of sitting down in the conference room. Find ways to build space for the little magic moments that happen in between the work getting done.
There are ways to recreate that magic even when you’re not in person. One of my clients began each meeting with a five-minute breakout session where everyone had to answer a question, solve a quick puzzle, tell a joke, share a win from the day—anything that got them connecting on a personal level before the group dived into the meeting agenda.
Connection can’t happen without your giving your full attention to each present moment. In each meeting, you have an opportunity to show team members they have your full attention. Put down the phone—in fact, don’t even bring it in the room! Create and maintain eye contact. Find a way to capture notes that doesn’t have you glued to your computer screen. Connect with the person in the present, rather than looking to the future after the meeting.
Remember: Connection is not a noun. It’s a verb. It requires action.
Connection is built through curiosity. Ask people questions about themselves; seek to discover what’s going on inside, how they’re perceiving things, what they most deeply want and need. You don’t need to read minds—just ask. Most important, when they do respond, be present in the response. Connect through making them feel seen and heard.
As a leader, your job is to be aware of how your emotional output impacts the people around you. Building authentic connections with the team you support will create positive emotional contagions that benefit everyone.
Jackie Insinger is the author of Spark Brilliance: How the Science of Positive Psychology Will Ignite, Engage, and Transform Your Team.