Mood Contagion: 3 Strategies for Leaders

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Emotional intelligence is carried through an organization “like electricity through wires,” wrote Daniel Goleman two decades ago in the Harvard Business Review. “To be more specific, the leader’s mood is quite literally contagious, spreading quickly and inexorably throughout the business.”

High levels of emotional intelligence, Goleman’s body of research demonstrates, creates climates in which “information sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking, and learning” flourish. Low levels of emotional intelligence create climates “rife with fear and anxiety.”

In the new world of work, we expand the concept of emotional intelligence to include Emotional, Relational and Team intelligence, or ERT-i.

One of the foundational aspects of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. This includes an awareness of our own emotional states, an understanding of how those emotional states impact others and the ability to manage our own “inner” emotional world. With this self-knowledge, we can connect more meaningfully and deeply in relationships. 

Relational intelligence is emotional intelligence turned outward. Relational intelligence speaks to our ability to be aware about how we affect others and how their emotional states might be affecting us. This enables us to act with empathy, to interact with and resolve conflict, and to motivate and persuade others in ways that have impact. 

Team intelligence is emotional intelligence applied in a team setting and includes the ability to assess and manage the emotional states of the team. This allows a leader to anticipate roadblocks to communication, resolve conflict and recognize and honor team members’ unique contributions. Having Team intelligence enables leaders to facilitate psychological safety, the hallmark of high-performing teams.

Today, developing and cultivating ERT-i capabilities is more important than ever for leaders at all levels of an organization. It all starts with mood, however. The leader’s mood and behaviors drive the moods and behaviors of everyone else – and it’s proven by research.

Leaders Have a Disproportionately Large Influence on Mood Contagion

“Mood contagion is a real thing that we all experience as human beings,” explains Demetra Anagnostopoulos, SurePeople co-CEO. “At work, it lives most visibly for us in meetings, and any kind of one-on-one conversation.” As a result, leaders need to manage their moods, so that the right “emotional and behavioral chain reaction” can occur.

Anagnostopoulos adds: “You could be carrying a [negative] mood from a previous interaction or conversation into new interactions. People tune-in to that nonverbally, and you may not be fully aware that you’re transmitting it. Then, if you layer on the fact that as a leader people are looking to you for guidance, information and direction, their mood is going to start to follow yours. So, your emotional state becomes magnified and even more contagious.”

3 Strategies for Leaders

There is good news here. The research shows that positive emotions travel faster than negative emotions, and if leaders can engage enough self-awareness to adjust their emotions and behavior accordingly from situation to situation, they can directly impact the climate and tone of a work environment.

Anagnostopoulos recommends you can start with three simple, yet powerful strategies:

  1. Consciously Recalibrate How You’re Feeling. If you’ve just come out of a difficult conversation or meeting, remind yourself to breathe, and you can do it in less than 1 minute! Dr. Andrew Weil’s “4-7-8” Breathing technique is proven to calm the nervous system and help you re-focus your emotions.
  2. Focus on the Future. Rather than focusing on a past (negative) interaction, ask yourself, “What’s the next interaction I’m going into, what state-of-mind do I need to be in, and how can I positively impact that interaction?”
  3. Borrow Other People’s Moods. Life happens. If you come into a situation where you’re feeling especially stressed or anxious, or if you’re carrying a negative emotional mood with you from a prior interaction, you can simply say to your team or colleagues: “Can I borrow your brains? I need some positive energy.” You will find that one aspect of being human is service and gratitude. People will usually mobilize to cheer you up, and will be grateful you asked them to help you shift from a negative to a positive state of mind.

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