Leadership and Emotional Contagion

“Employees are not emotional islands. Rather, they continuously spread their own moods and receive and are influenced by others’ moods. When they work in groups, they literally can catch each others’ emotions like viruses, a phenomenon known as emotional contagion.” Wharton @ Work, University of Pennsylvania

In the past decade, there has been an important finding in neuroscience that should impact on how every leader leadsemotions are contagious.

One aspect of the research has been to examine the emotional impact of “bosses” on those who work for them – the power of mood to spread and “infect” others. “It is one of the most robust phenomena I have ever seen,” said researcher, Richard Saavedra, and it’s all unconscious.”  Saavedra and his colleagues at Cal State University at Long Beach examined the effects of leader’s moods on groups.  189 volunteer undergraduates were selected and divided into 63 groups of three and told they were participating in a team building exercise. Before the exercise, a “leader” chosen from each team was shown one of two video clips — “Saturday Night Live” skits or a vignette on torture — designed to induce a positive or negative mood. All team members’ moods were measured before and after the task.

The results were definitive.  Leader’s moods permeated the groups – and “negative” moods trumped the positive.  According to Wharton@Work, “Because employees pay great attention to their leaders’ emotions, leaders can strongly influence the mood, and thus attitudes and performance, of their teams through emotional contagion.”

How Emotional Contagion Works

There is significant research showing how emotions influence memory, perception and cognition. These factors influence every aspect of an employee’s performance – in fact – what is “performance” other than the combination of thought, feeling and behavior?

When people are “infected” by the moods of others, especially their leaders, it impacts everything from their beliefs to the decisions they make.  Professor Sigal Barsade, a pioneer researcher in emotional contagion (Wharton School of Business) refers to those under the influence of emotional contagion as “walking mood inductors.”  

Professor Barsade’s research began from a direct experience with a co-worker.  Journalist Marina Krakovsky writes: “Years ago, shortly before Professor Barsade went to graduate school, she worked in a group that included a curmudgeonly, crabby coworker. Since Barsade wasn’t working closely with “Crabby,” she assumed this woman had no effect on her life. That is, until Crabby went on vacation. The group became a much more sociable and pleasant place to be,” recalls Barsade. Then, when she returned the next week, everybody got uptight again. “I remember how striking it was. It wasn’t that she was telling us what to do, but just the way she was in the workplace that was influencing others.”
Barsade says that the experience led directly to her research into “emotional contagion,” the transfer of moods among people in a group. Emotional contagion and other emotional effects interested Barsade because they helped explain phenomena that, on the surface, may not seem rational.

Ms. Krakovsky also points out, “Emotion and reason have classically been seen as opposing forces, and the insight that changing your thoughts can change your feelings forms the basis of a popular form of psychotherapy. But the true relationship between thoughts and feelings is far more complex. Not only can thoughts lead to feelings (good or bad), but feelings also lead to thoughts and actions, which can feed off each other.” According to Professor Barsade, “Emotions and reason are completely intertwined.”

 Groups Have Emotions Too

Little research has been done on the implications of “group emotions” in the workplace. It’s logical to assume though, based on what we are starting to understand about the effects of emotional contagion, that groups within a workplace are reflecting the influences of key emotional players within their culture.
While studies show that all emotions can be “spread,” so-called negative emotions seem to dominate over other feelings. This makes sense, because emotions like fear and anger activate the “fight or flight” mechanism in the amygdala, gripping our physiological process.
New York University neuroscientists have recently received a grant from National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSD) to examine how fears are passed from generation to generation.  Existing research has found that babies are especially sensitive to parental negative emotions. For that reason, children of parents who suffered emotional trauma would be particularly vulnerable to a parent’s anxious behavior in response to cues reminding them of the trauma.
Studies like this are important because we can begin to extrapolate this information to understand its implications in workplace relationships and settings.  Because of the power many bosses have within their domains of influence, they can trigger the emotions (negative and positive) that workers feel (often latent) toward role models and parental figures.

Freedom from Emotional Contagion 

While it is easy to get caught in the grip of emotional contagion (example: road rage) ultimately we can exercise choice over our emotional responses.  “In general, the key is awareness,” says Cal State researcher Saavedra, for this reason, making people aware of the phenomena of emotional contagion is crucial.”   It is important to understand that when we expose ourselves to the mood of leaders and co-workers who are unconsciously acting out feelings like anger, hostility and fear it can have toxic effects on our well-being – and our performance.

Emotional contagion can work both ways.  Fear can spread – as well as enthusiasm or confidence or hope.  This is why it’s critical for leaders to understand they can use the hard-wired power of mood contagion in creating a positive emotional climate for those around them.   These conscious (authentic) efforts to infuse workplace relationships with positive feelings can impact every aspect of performance. When leaders learn to consciously manage their own emotions and understand the emotional triggers of others, they can become a potent force for good within the workplace.  As long as management and leaders still cling to worn-out beliefs  like “there is no place for emotions in the workplace” we’ll still be subject to harsh and toxic cultures that are inherently anti-productive.

Enlightened leaders will increasingly harness the knowledge of emerging brain science to understand the whole-brain perspective of human dynamics.   And as they do, it will transform work as we know it.

Thanks for reading!
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultantants
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  1. Anne Brink says:

    Really love this post. I am wondering if you work with leaders and work places on improving their emotional awareness and what kind of results have you seen.

    • Anne,
      thanks for the comment. Yes we do – within the context of developing emotional competencies within the workplace. The primary focus in on impacting the emotional “climate” of a group, team or organization through communication, practices and policies. This is a process. Often a long one. But the neuroscience makes a compelling case for this kind of change.

  2. First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I found myself thinking; WOW! Someone came up with a descriptive name for the disease that has been plaguing organizations (businesses, churches, and families). An understanding that positive thinking can bring about positive manifestations (The Secret), self-fulfilling prophesy, etc., is pretty well known and documented in studies; I used the term “Reciprocity” in my research.
    In a similar light, negative thinking will bring about negative manifestations. The amazing phenomena is this, if these are known outcomes, why then do so many managers (and others) not consciously live daily in a manner which spreads the good rather than the bad?
    I conducted my Doctoral research at Northcentral University as a qualitative exploration of the perceptions of trust between subordinates and their managers, and the potential for behavioral change, based on the perceptions of subordinates in aviation maintenance organizations. Further, that Gemeinschaftsgefuhl or Eupsychia could be attained through positive interactions (initiated by managers) between subordinates and their leaders.
    It would appear to me, that Emotional Contagion is directly linked to the attainment of desirable and enlightened organizations.
    Thanks, for a great post, I will of course pass this along to all within my circle of influence. I have also sent you a connect request through LinkedIn. I hope you accept, and also keep me in the loop with future posts.

    • Bobby,
      Thanks for your comment and appreciation.
      The evidence on the effects of emotional contagion continues to mount. I think the next phase should be to gain a better
      understanding of “how” this takes place. Clearly, nonverbal communication plays a major role – but how? It is a compelling
      question. The great news about emotional contagion is that ALL emotions can “spread.” Problem is too many organizational leaders are
      still questioning whether emotions in the workplace matter. There’s a lot of education needed.
      Thanks in advance for passing along this information to your circle of influence. And I will see you on LI.
      PS My usual posting day is Thursdays – subscribe to make sure you get each post.

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