Just How Contagious Is Your Good Mood? And Why It Matters for Leaders

Several years ago, Facebook conducted a fascinating experiment to look at just how contagious emotions are. Without giving away what they were up to, they temporarily changed the news feed of 689,000 Facebook users by either omitting most of the ‘positive’ emotional posts in a user’s news feed (where someone is happy, glad, grateful, etc.), or, for the other group of Facebook users, omitting most of the ‘negative’ emotional posts in their news feed (where someone is expressing sadness, anger, frustration, etc.). In simple terms, they changed the degree to which you were fed more positive, or negative, posts from your connections.

The results, while perhaps not totally surprising, were fascinating. After seeing the words that someone else wrote, Facebook users went on to make their own posts contain either more positive or more negative emotions. Simply by seeing others express negative emotions, even on a computer screen, those emotions transmit to us. And when we see their posts contain more positive emotions – we in turn are more positive. Of course, we know that it’s important to surround yourself with the right people – but it appears that this includes even words on a computer screen by people we may or may not even be close with.

If emotions are THAT contagious – how much more of an effect does that perennially negative coworker have when we have to be around them for much of the day? Or a negative boss?  As most of us know, they can be entirely exhausting. Research shows that it takes emotional effort just to be around them because we have to mentally fight being dragged down with them.

Yet effective leaders understand the flipside; while being positive, displaying positive emotions, and being around others who are positive is generally a good thing, sometimes you need to selectively and very judiciously transmit negative emotions at the right time in the right way.

If people or teams are coasting along towards failure, you might try to be calm and avoid showing displeasure. But getting upset might be exactly what they need to wake them up. I remember the first time I really harnessed this – by strategically expressing anger at a group of new graduate students who were dropping the ball on an applied research project for a large corporation. Showing displeasure and anger certainly got their attention – and caused them to focus their efforts in better ways. Of course, if negative emotional displays are a general style of leadership you practice – you are harming your team more than you can know.

Emotions are a fact of life. And they matter just as much for that person who claims they are unemotional. In your leadership, are you setting the right environment for your team? Are you dragging them down? Leaders set the pace and use emotions in their repertoire. Are you setting the right emotional pace? Don’t fake your emotions, but control them and be aware of their impact on others.