August 3rd, 2014

Positivity And The Effective Leader

3rd In A Series: Lessons On Executive Leadership Styles And Behaviors.

guidoTo hear health and fitness writer Dorothy Folts-Gray tell it, everyone knows yawns are catching, even from a photo, even from a dog. “But so are moods, and we pick them up without even realizing it.”

Mood contagion, the tendency to ‘catch’ (experience/express) another person’s emotions, affects all human relationships, from marriage to business to professional sports. The science of emotional contagion dates back to 400 B.C., when Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, observed that people mirror the emotions they see and feel in others.

Foltz-Gray points out that from infancy, all of us imitate facial expressions, postures, and voices of the people around us. Those expressions trigger certain emotions — the same ones experienced by the person we mimic. But the process happens so fast, we are completely unaware of it.

Mood contagion: the tendency to ‘catch’ (experience/express) another person’s emotions.

Although emotions and moods may seem trivial from a business point of view, they matter greatly in the workplace, writes celebrated author and lecturer Tony Schwartz.

“Walk into any Department of Motor Vehicles and you’ll feel the impact of the prevailing mood instantly — a dense fog of sourness, irritability and listlessness. Walk into almost any Apple store and you’ll experience the opposite — a sense of aliveness and excitement that raises your energy and makes you want to buy something,” says Schwartz.

While most people recognize that a leader’s mood — and how he or she impacts the mood of others — plays a significant role in any organization, emotions are often seen as too personal or unquantifiable to talk about in a meaningful way, according to Daniel Goleman, co-author of Primal Leadership.

coffeeYet, “understanding the powerful role of emotions in the workplace sets the best leaders apart from the rest — not just in tangibles such as better business results and the retention of talent, but also in the all-important intangibles, such as higher morale, motivation, and commitment,” says Goleman.

Mood contagion has particularly important implications for leaders who, by virtue of their authority, exert a disproportionate impact on the emotions of those they supervise. In fact, the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders, according to Schwartz.

“Everyone watches the boss. People take their emotional cues from the top. The leader’s attitude affects the mood of direct reports, and a domino effect ripples throughout the company’s emotional climate,” Goleman writes. “Because the leader’s way of seeing things has special weight, leaders ‘manage meaning’ for a group, offering a way to interpret, and so react emotionally to, a given situation.”

“The emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders.” –Tony Schwartz

According to Goleman, team members generally see the leader’s emotional reaction as the most valid response, and so model their own on it — particularly in an ambiguous situation, where various members react differently. In a sense, the leader sets the emotional standard.

As leaders have the potential to influence group members, leaders must understand the role of moods in team settings. Consequently, they should be aware of how their mood can affect other people. (We’ll get into much greater detail on mood contagion among executive leadership team (ELT) members in a future posting on Emotional Intelligence and the Effective Leader.)

“Followers look to leaders for their emotional cues — it’s your role to provide a positive perspective, especially when the situation is negative.” –OSI

Needless to say, moods influence how effectively people work: upbeat/positive moods boost cooperation and performance, while sour/negative moods create dissonance and dysfunction.

According to Goleman, optimistic, enthusiastic leaders attract talented people and more easily retain them — for the pleasure of working in their presence. “Conversely, leaders who emit the negative register — who are irritable, touchy, domineering, cold — repel people. No one wants to work for a grouch.”

From Organization Systems International*

Polaris Competency Model

Positive Impact


Effective performers make positive impressions on those around them. They are personable, self-confident, and generally likable. They are optimistic and enthusiastic about what they do, and their excitement is contagious. They energize those around them.

Effective performers…

  • See the positive side of things
  • Have a contagious enthusiasm
  • Are constructive and caring
  • Have a sense of humor

Tips for the current/aspiring ELT Member

  • To get positive performance, approach challenges with a positive attitude — expectations color outcomes.
  • Followers look to leaders for their emotional cues — it’s your role to provide a positive perspective, especially when the situation is negative.
  • Keep things in proper perspective — when things look bleak, take a minute to step back and look at the big picture.

When evaluating performance, to what extent does this ELT member…

  • Display passion and a positive attitude?

*Organization Systems International (OSI) is a San Diego based, global consultancy providing “talent solutions” in Leadership and Management to an international clientele. The company’s services include competency modeling, executive coaching, and competency based interviewing, just to name a few.

OSI’s Polaris Competency Model has been incorporated into this series on executive leadership styles and behaviors to illustrate core competencies ideally found among the members of highly functional leadership teams. The model, based on the disciplines of organizational psychology and organizational development, provides a mix of science and art for evaluating executive level talent. It is often used in the hiring and promotion process, as well as in executive succession planningTo learn more about OSI, click here.

Look for the next installment in this series on executive leadership styles and behaviors: Writing Skills And The Effective Leader, coming August 17.

Sources for this post:

Schwartz, Tony, Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team, Harvard Business Review, July 11, 2012.

booklook2Foltz-Gray, Dorothy, How Contagious Are Your Emotions?Oprah Magazine, December, 2004.

Volmer, Judith, Catching Leaders’ Mood: Contagion Effects in Teams, Administrative Sciences Journal, August 29, 2012.

Goleman, Daniel, Primal Leadership: Harvard Business Review Press, 2013. 

Previous posts in this series: 

Relationship Building And The Effective Leader

Leadership Team Key To Optimizing Organizational Performance

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