Pursuing the Excellent Life
July 16, 2021

You Can't Avoid Emotional Contagion with a Mask

You Can't Avoid Emotional Contagion with a Mask

When we lived in Arizona, my dog, Maggie, and I returned from an early morning walk when Maggie spied a rather large grey cat lounging in front of our house. Maggie did not take kindly to the cat’s presence. She tugged at her leash, trying to get the cat. The cat was unimpressed and backed off a little, but didn’t run. I let Maggie get closer to the cat (but not TOO close). The cat puffed up and hissed at Maggie. Much to her embarrassment, Maggie yelped and scurried backwards in tactical retreat. I took Maggie inside, and took our Collie, Dallas (who sadly is no longer with us), out for his walk. I was quite curious to see how the cat reacted to Dallas, who at 75 pounds is much larger than Maggie. To my surprise, Dallas calmly walked over to the cat, who neither puffed up nor hissed. Dallas and the cat sniffed each other briefly, then Dallas started sniffing around for something else interesting and the cat walked over to me for some petting. The difference in the cat’s reactions was remarkable. With agitated Maggie, the cat became agitated as well. With mellow Dallas, the cat was laid back.


In addition to being pretty amusing, the incident led me to reflect on how our attitude can influence those around us. Whether you realize it or not, your moods and emotions influence the moods and emotions of those around you. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as emotional or mood contagion. The idea that emotions are contagious is nothing new. (Many of you will recognize the Proverb, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”) The concept of emotional contagion is not just philosophical; there is considerable empirical evidence that leaders’ emotions influence followers’ emotions. Emotions spread through subconscious, automatic means and through more conscious comparison processes. The subconscious mechanisms are similar to how one person smiling leads to others smiling as well. People often mimic one another’s facial expressions, speech patterns and vocal tones. Interestingly, mimicking of a happy expression can lead to actually feeling the positive emotions. When you see someone smile, not only do you have the tendency to smile, you may actually feel happier. There is also a more conscious mood comparison in which a person uses others’ emotions as social cues to how they should be feeling. If you’re a leader, managing your followers’ emotions is in your best interests. More positive emotions lead to greater cooperation, less conflict and better task performance. In our personal lives, emotional contagion is just as important, maybe even more so. Your mood and emotions project onto your loved ones, even if you don’t realize it. (I’m pretty good at keeping a poker face when I start to lose my temper, but I swear Maggie can read my emotions more easily than you can read these words. If I just start to get mad, her tail goes down, and she goes into full-on cute mode. It’s spooky.)

Let’s talk about two ways you can use emotional contagion to your advantage. Suppose you feel a meeting getting negatively emotional. If you slam your fist on the table and yell at everyone to calm down, you might get their attention, but your anger will fuel their anger. However, if you take control more calmly, your calm will cool their anger. In this case, you can use emotional contagion to calm an immediate unproductive situation. You can also use emotional contagion to set the overall mood of your organization. If you are generally upbeat and optimistic, over time your workplace is likely to become a more pleasant, optimistic (and productive) environment. Of course, managing your team’s emotions isn’t easy. It takes awareness of others’ emotions, along with the ability to regulate your own emotions. Even though it’s difficult, adding emotional management to your leadership toolkit enhances your effectiveness as a leader. Begin by building awareness of your own emotions. Then learn to regulate your own emotions, especially in emotionally charged situations. Be like Dallas, not like Maggie. Otherwise, you might find yourself on the receiving end of a metaphorical cat scratch.

[Note: This is an edited version of a column I wrote earlier.]

-- Craig Van Slyke, Co-Host, The Rational Ignorance Podcast