Lately, we’ve all gotten better at avoiding contagion. Most of us steer clear when someone sneezes or coughs. But as easy as it is to catch the common cold, studies suggest it’s just as easy to catch another person’s mood, a process known as emotional contagion.
How does this happen? While emotional contagion is difficult to detect, the actual process is simple. Humans are social creatures, and mimicry is part of the social bond. When someone smiles at us, we typically smile back. The same is true of a frown—if someone approaches you looking cranky, you may unconsciously return the look. At this point, you may experience a bit of sadness as your mind follows your body.
When people work together, a constant exchange of moods takes place, and it’s possible to catch a negative attitude like a virus. Within a team, the effects of just one negative person can be very damaging to the project and the well-being of each individual. It’s vital that leaders understand how to manage mood contagion.
As a leader, your team will be highly attuned to your emotions, which means your mood has the power to influence their attitudes, spirits, and behaviors. As the saying goes, “leaders bring the weather.”
For example, take Greg, a senior leader in the legal group at a multinational tech company. Greg felt disillusioned with the direction the general counsel was taking their group and frustrated with the administrative burden placed on his team. He strongly valued transparency, and so occasionally expressed his cynicism and frustration to his team. However, as Greg discovered through stakeholder feedback that I collected for him, his team found his expressions of negativity dispiriting and demotivating. Unbeknownst to him, his negativity was sapping team morale.
Positivity likely comes easily when you’ve had a fine start to the day, but what about the times you’ve slept poorly and everyone in your household is running late? Or maybe, like so many, you’re just feeling burned out? Thankfully, there are several proven ways for you to bring good weather to your team.
Hone your self-awareness
Because you largely control the team’s climate, it’s crucial that you maintain awareness of your mood and shift it if necessary. If you like the weather analogy, asking yourself, “What’s my current weather status (Sunny? Cloudy? Unsettled?) and is that okay?” can help you pay attention to your state of mind.
Especially if you’re feeling burned out or close to it, you may not realize the extent to which you’re transmitting your exhaustion and lack of positivity to your team. This simple question can help you increase your self-awareness and quickly tune in to your internal state.
Reframe to boost your mood
If your current mood is not useful to your team, work to change it. One proven method for changing how you feel is reframing. Like adjusting your view through the lens of a camera, reframing helps you shift your mindset by looking at a situation, person, or relationship from a different and more positive angle.
For example, let’s say you just found out that you weren’t chosen for a promotion you wanted; you’re now in a sour mood as you head into a team meeting. Instead of ruminating on being passed over, consider what positive things might come from not being promoted. Will you avoid some unwanted additional stress? Or possibly find a role that is even better aligned with your long-term career aspirations?
By reframing the situation and looking for the potential upsides, you can reduce your stress and boost your mood.
Consider body language
Along with your state of mind, also pay attention to your body language. For example, while you might cross your arms because you’re cold, it can communicate as defensiveness or anxiety (and be contagious). On the other hand, a relaxed upright posture, a smile, and eye contact can express warmth and confidence and engender the same feelings in others.
The relationship between our minds and bodies is a two-way street: What we think influences how we feel and how our body reacts, but the converse is also true. For example, choosing to smile spurs a chemical reaction in your brain that can make you feel happier and even build your immunity.
Foster a positive climate
It’s essential to be aware and intentional about the climate you’re creating. It can be all too easy to focus on the negative at work, where anger is expressed more frequently than joy.
Encourage the sharing of wins, positive experiences, and positive emotions. And make it clear that you won’t tolerate destructive negativity and behaviors. For example, my client Carla adopted a practice of a ‘plus one’ meeting culture, including comments like “What I like about your idea is x and y . . . “, especially when she had another idea in mind. She also fired a top performer whose consistent skepticism and negativity were infecting the rest of his team.
A positive emotion culture is not about constant (and unsustainable) positivity. It’s about correcting the balance between negative and positive emotions at work and fostering an environment where negativity is less likely to take hold.
Don’t forget to safeguard yourself from negativity. Consider what’s going on around you: Do some of your coworkers seem chronically stressed? Does your mood lift when you’re away from someone?
If you suspect that negative emotional contagion is getting to you, make time for self-care. This might include exercise, mindfulness practices, and having positive, high-quality connections with others, all of which are proven mood-boosters. And if your feelings persist, you may want to seek the support of a therapist.
As social creatures, we will always be susceptible to catching the moods of those around us. By knowing this—and practicing a few helpful techniques—you can leverage your emotional awareness in the workplace, tipping the scales in favor of positivity for you and your team.
Dina Denham Smith is the founder of Cognitas, an executive and team coaching firm. Her clients include senior leaders and teams at companies such as Adobe, Netflix, and PwC.