Emotional Contagion

The role of leaders in spreading the good and the bad

The sun was shining, Santigold was playing and a grassy field stood empty when Colin Wynter decided to start dancing. By himself. Not just a side to side sway. No, this was a dance of abandon. Flapping about in a decidedly awkward manner. He danced uninhibited, flapping about in a decidedly awkward manner. Finally someone else joined. They danced awkwardly while others sat on the ground looking on. Then a third guy joined the revelry. That was the tipping point. The energy was infectious. Within a few moments a small crowd formed. Soon it grew into a throng, people joining from all directions. One guy even ran in, leaping over others like he was on a mission to join a movement. By the end of the video, a large crowd gathered caught up in the the contagious energy. Everyone on that sunny knoll wanted to be a part of what was happening. All because one guy started dancing. You can see it action here.

The infectious environment started with the first person willing to take a risk, his awkward flapping creating the first ember. The second was the spark while the third guy was the ignition. (This longer video from a different angle shows a few false starts. Only at minute five does that the spark turns into a flame.)

The emotions of others can cast a spell on us. Sometimes we get caught up in the infectious energy around us unconsciously. Other times it's conscious as we observe others for clues for what's expected in the culture. Emotional contagion often starts with mimicking the expressions and movements of others like at the music festival. We also synchronize with others through our emotions — often unconsciously. It happens just as readily at companies as it does with strangers. Given daily contact with our co-workers emotional contagion can happen even more easily at work.

Getting into sync emotionally with others can help us have empathy and build relationships. This allows us to move as one unit towards important goals. Anyone can influence the mood at a company. The stronger the emotion or the bigger the role, the more than impact is felt. Leaders have an outsize influence on emotional contagion. When their energy leaks it's like wild fire burning through the organization, the embers lighting everyone on fire. When the energy is positive it energizes everyone.

A leader who can tell a story, give us the why behind our goals taps into positive emotions. Leaders who get us excited towards a common goal are incredibly influential. Their ability to get us focused and excited about a direction can even move markets. Other leaders are good at bringing us together, pulling all the parts together so we work in harmony. They make our work joyful. Positive moods and behaviors like laughter create a culture than nurtures the team’s well-being and brings results.

There's a negative side to the emotional contagion. Studies have shown that stress is contagious. Gossip and toxic behavior can have a detrimental effect when anyone engages in it. Even an individual contributor can become an accelerant for negativity that picks up steam, engulfing others. Toxic behavior takes a toll on everyone. Negative emotions from leaders are even more harmful. We often think of negativity as bad moods or angry outbursts but it can show up in more insidious ways. Repeated skepticism, especially when it turns to cynicism can be damaging. Leaders who rely on workaholic tendencies can create a different sort of emotional contagion. In this environment, others follow the leader by working long hours, pushing themselves past boundaries that protect their physical and mental well-being. If they don't, they feel guilty, their self confidence can plummet and paranoia about whether they're doing a good job can follow. Have you ever been around a workaholic? The energy can be frantic and heavy. It's exhausting form of emotional contagion.

Whatever the cause, the consequence of negative emotional contagion is a toxic culture where people burnout and attrition is high. The team then works harder spending hours hiring replacements for those who have left or taking on the extra work of former co-workers. The culture becomes a haven for burnout. No one does their best work when they feel fearful, doubtful or on edge.

When a senior leader goes negative they become isolated and eventually moved out, this is actually the best outcome. If not addressed quickly, they can infect the rest of the leadership team. This creates a vortex of negativity that pulls in the rest of the company. They can tank a culture. This is how companies implode.

It's easy to say that leaders need to be multipliers of positive emotion. Much harder to do in practice. To be a multiplier for good emotional contagion takes oodles of emotion management. Building this skill helps the culture but also allows leader to have stamina for the rigors of leadership and protect against burnout. Making emotion management a practice will pay off in dividends. If you’re a COO, CEO or VC, identify leaders with natural skills at creating an infectious environment. Call on these leaders when a boost of positive energy is needed.

At the same time, take care not to ignore the compounding effects of the leadership team as a whole. The effect of leaders multiplies dramatically when they group together, becoming like that throng of dancers. This can be helpful for harmful, depending on the mood they’re spreading. Get the leadership team working together well to create a positive effective. Never let negative emotional contagion fester in leadership. Address it immediately before other leaders get caught up into it. It's one of the best investments to be made.

What else to read

How bad moods spread.

The cost of workaholic leaders.

Research on the ripple effect of emotional contagion.


Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups?  Send me a note.