Managers: did you know your emotions are highly contagious?

Sep 29, 2021

6 mins

Managers: did you know your emotions are highly contagious?
Betsy Parayil-Pezard

CEO of Connection Leadership - Coach, speaker, author of “Reawaken your life through mindfulness meditation” and “My little routines : Boost your self-confidence” (in French, published by Marabout)

We often tend to perceive our emotions as bubbling up inside us, abstract and invisible to others. But the opposite is true. Human emotions are expressed through a physical reality that is transmitted from one individual to another. And that also means from manager to employee. Our mindfulness expert, Betsy Parayil-Pezard, is the author of a book on “punk mindfulness” (in French, published by Marabout); she is the English voice for Petit BamBou, a meditation app; and is the co-founder of the consulting and coaching firm Connection Leadership. She encourages managers to be aware of how their emotions impact the work environment and suggests a new path to mindful leadership.

In the beginning… there was the emotion

In 1994, Daniel Goleman published a landmark book called Emotional Intelligence. He tried to explain why professionals with lower IQs could outperform those with higher IQs. Success came from their ability to understand their emotions—and those of the people around them—and to act on what they learned. Even today, many companies don’t fully grasp the concept. Managers must be trained to recognize, understand and manage the emotional side of the projects and teams they oversee. They also need to consider the phenomenon of emotional contagion. That’s what I would like to discuss here.

But first, let’s take a closer look at emotions. Some theories identify eight basic emotions, whereas others put the number at 12. A study of several thousand people conducted by the University of California in 2017 listed 27 emotions in total. In each theory or study, emotions are more than just thoughts—they are rooted in the body. According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, this is a grouping of phenomena that emerge and evolve.

  • First there are circumstances. Let’s imagine your boss says she wants to talk.

  • Next comes your assessment of these circumstances. “On the one hand, I think I’ve done pretty well on my last few projects. She probably wants to discuss my professional development, so it’s a good opportunity. On the other hand, I’d say that I’ve been making quite a few mistakes lately. Maybe she wants to blame me for something, which I’m not looking forward to at all.” Either way, our brains are constantly generating conscious and unconscious stories. They’re wired to look to the future, giving us time to act out of self-preservation or try and create the best possible outcome. This step is binary—like/dislike—so you can classify the experience quickly and get moving.

  • What happens next is physical. For example, you might get butterflies in your stomach, sweaty hands, a dry throat, or a headache. Thoughts also emerge at this stage.

  • The last step is action. “I will respond. I will act. Maybe I’ll call a colleague so I can vent or share my excitement. Maybe I’ll self-isolate so I can calm down.”

Why managers’ emotions are highly contagious

Beyond what happens on an individual level, it is even more interesting to observe that emotions are also collective. They’re transmitted from one person to another. Since the 1950s, researchers have understood and demonstrated—first in animals and then in humans—how our brains are organized to recreate on our faces the expressions of others. Neuroscientists have identified a type of neuron—the “mirror neuron”—that detects this information and reproduces it within our own system. In practical terms, even if you don’t think anyone will notice your foul mood in that meeting today, your crossed arms and vacant expression will send an unconscious message to everyone around you—even if you smile. One study revealed that when subjects were put in the same room as a highly motivated individual, their performance improved. And the reverse was also true: motivation decreased when participants were in the presence of someone who appeared unmotivated. In both cases, participants were oblivious to the influence exerted by the other person. In short, emotions aren’t personal: they’re shared.

And the higher up you are in terms of hierarchy, the higher the risk of emotional propagation. How is that even possible? Leaders get more attention. People have an unconscious tendency to align themselves with whoever has power. According to the psychiatrist Dr. Jared O’Garro-Moore, “We imitate people we like and who have a higher degree of social influence.”

Managers don’t get emotional support

It’s not enough for managers to be aware of these mechanisms. They must act on them. That means working on your attitude and posture so you can understand how to bring everyone into a positive spiral. But in order to work on your attitude, you need what is called “self-awareness”, which is considered the basis of emotional intelligence. Despite the fact most people feel that they know themselves and how others perceive them, true self-awareness is actually quite rare. In a university study on self-awareness involving 5,000 people, researchers found that only 10%-15% of professionals actually met the criteria. This study developed the idea that there were two kinds of self-awareness. Internal self-awareness is having insight into your internal world, whereas external self-awareness involves your impact and how others see you. With 360° feedback tools, leaders can better detect the gap between these two versions. Managers are especially susceptible to the risk of misunderstanding their impact. In the same study, researchers also found that the most experienced managers had the least accurate assessment of how their leadership was perceived externally.

Sadly, most managers still lack the emotional support they need. Companies tend to provide resources only to those at the top. In my experience, managers are generally sandwiched between the strategic ambition of top management and the pressures of day-to-day operations. During the pandemic, managers were on the front line, offering a wealth of innovative solutions and empathy. But they weren’t getting support.

6 practical tips you can use now

If you’re in a similar situation and don’t feel supported by your company, you can still take action. Here are some practical steps:

  • Before starting your next meeting, be aware of your emotional state. Consider mindfulness rituals, such as spending two minutes in silence or listening to music, before kicking things off. Some managers ask their employees to share their “personal weather report.” This gives people a chance to check in with their feelings without going into detail. The aim is to address emotions—which have an impact on discussions and results—before jumping into technical topics. It’s also an easy way to connect with others.

  • Set aside 10 minutes at the end of the day to unwind. Take a deep breath and ask yourself how you’re feeling. Was it a good day or a bad day? Then gradually go into detail to analyze the causes behind your emotional state. What role do emotions play in those things you are responsible for, whether it’s performance, decision-making, talent acquisition, turnover, team management, negotiation, conflict management, or even innovation?

  • Write things down to streamline your analysis. One study of unemployed people revealed that those who wrote about their emotional state and job search three times a week found work three times faster than the others. You could also try this exercise by putting yourself in the shoes of one of your colleagues. This approach is useful when there is conflict. Another study demonstrated that you lose at least eight hours of productivity for each unresolved conflict. You can develop the habit of turning towards a problem rather than away from it, on the basis that most people would prefer to see it resolved. This often requires courage on your part.

  • Address the behaviors of negative people on your teams so you can understand where problems arise and get these individuals involved in changing them. It is possible to disconnect from a negative system at any time. How? By taking small, everyday decisions that enable you to play a positive part in situations. At the same time, there’s an interesting theory that suggests depression comes from the accumulation of small, negative, everyday choices. In your role as manager, and through your actions, you can help turn around a toxic work atmosphere.

  • Be mindful of deceptively laid-back work environments. Installing table football or organizing an exceptional team-building event is not enough. Forced positivity can actually be toxic. There is nothing more jarring for your team than the injunction to be OK. It can keep people from expressing negative emotions, which are equally important when a situation is complex or unresolved. A healthy environment makes space for negative emotions. This approach allows people to express what is wrong and explore how to change it while consciously cultivating positive emotions such as hope, optimism, and pride.

  • Respecting commitments; encouraging, supporting, thanking, and recognizing each other; having fun; being inspired—these are the pillars of a positive culture without any of the bullshit. Every manager encounters complexity in some form. Accept that as a reality and build on positive emotions.

Translated by: Andrea Schwam

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