Emotional Contagion: What Mood are You Spreading?

Emotional Contagion: What Mood are You Spreading?


Just like a bad cold, emotions are contagious. (Primal Leadership; Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee)

Have a conversation with a friend or colleague that is hopeful, passionate and motivating, and you walk away feeling a little more buoyant. Similarly, it is common to feel a little deflated after an encounter with someone expressing fear, anxiety or outrage.

This makes intuitive sense and we’ve all experienced a boss that is frustrated, angry, or annoyed and then watch as the mood in a room downgrades from neutral to cautious, to fearful and maybe disengaged. This concept of emotional contagion is not just a curious phenomenon, it also affects organizational results.

One of the oldest laws in psychology holds that beyond a moderate level, increases in anxiety and worry erode mental abilities. Not surprisingly, more positive emotion at work is the strongest predictor of satisfaction, and therefore also predicts how likely employees are to quit. In this sense, leaders that spread bad moods are simply bad for business.”

Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee

I Don’t Feel Like Being Positive!

While creating and maintaining positive emotion of a team is the right thing to do, what if you just don’t feel like it?  How do you manage emotions that are negative? If you’ve just come from a series of bad meetings and frustrating interactions, how to put this aside and be positive for your staff?  This is especially challenging for middle managers that can be in the position of having to deliver messages or support initiatives they don’t believe in or that they know won’t meet the needs of their team/customers.

Some insight into emotional control comes from two of the four domains of Emotional Intelligence: self-awareness and self-management.

Self-awareness means you must be aware of what you are feeling. This sounds simple, but many of us get “hooked” (Emotional Agility, Susan David)  by an emotion without even knowing the source. Our primal brain takes over and we end up getting defensive, making a snarky comment, shifting our body language or shutting down completely.

To maintain positive emotion within a team, not only must you be aware and cognizant of your feelings, but also be able to manage your output.

In other words, you can’t indulge the negative emotion with a reaction.

A Model for Self-Awareness

One approach that is helpful in cultivating self-awareness is the CTFAR model created by Brooke Castillo.

C-Circumstance; T-Thought; F-Feeling; A-Action and R-Result.

When your negative emotion arises (this goes in the F line), pause and quietly reflect on the thought that is creating this emotion. Be careful not to confuse the circumstance with the thought. It is tempting to say that your emotion is caused by the circumstance. For instance, you’ve just come from a meeting with senior leaders. You presented an idea for change. The response was disagreement from some, and others ignored you completely by typing on their laptop. It is tempting to go straight to emotion – their reaction to your idea CAUSED my feeling of frustration, but that isn’t actually true.

There was a thought that occurred between the facts (circumstances) of the encounter and your emotion. What did you think about how they responded to your idea? Maybe it was a version of… “They should respect me. They should listen to what I say. They should like my idea.” These thoughts are actually the true cause of feelings of anger and frustration. The realization that thoughts cause emotion is immensely helpful as you work to control your emotion (self-management) and create positive emotion on your team, because we can choose our thoughts. We can question what we are thinking and create new beliefs and perspectives, that lead to emotions, actions and the result that we actually want.

Your unintentional thoughts might look like this:

Unintentional Model

Circumstance (Facts): meeting with senior leaders. You presented an idea for change. The response was disagreement from some, and others ignored you by typing on their laptop

Thought: They should respect me. They should listen to what I say. They should like my idea.

Feeling: Angry, resentful, frustrated

Action: Give up. No point in talking about it if I am going to be treated that way. Walk back to office and complain to whoever will listen.

Result: No one hears your idea. No one listens because you stop talking. (Notice how this proves your original thought?)


The Intentional Model

Now take the same example and work the same circumstance through an intentional CTFAR model.

Circumstance: Meeting with senior leaders. You presented an idea for change. The response was disagreement from some, and others ignored you by typing on their laptop. (same as before)

Thought: This is a bad time, no one seems engaged.

Feeling: Disappointed, but accepting.

Action: Think about how to approach differently. Offer to set up another meeting specifically focused on your idea. Walk back to office and schedule the next meeting.

Result: Forward progress. Another shot at presenting your idea.


Bridge the Gap from Awareness to Management

Using the CTFAR model takes you from self-awareness to self-management and bridges these two domains of emotional intelligence. The awareness of the thoughts causing your emotions is enormously helpful in choosing new and more helpful thoughts that create emotions and actions that resonate with your team.

If positive emotion at work leads to increased satisfaction, lower turnover and better results, it is imperative that leaders work to create it. Creating positive emotion comes only from the understanding that your thoughts create the emotions you have now and those are all within your control.

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