You’re Contagious

Did you know that your emotions — the ones you intend to show and the ones that get away from you –  are contagious? On top of that, those emotions can have serious business consequences. That’s especially important when you’re managing in changing times.

I recently taught a Webinar for Poynter’s NewsU on the subject of managing change. It was my first foray into this form of distance teaching, and I didn’t know what kind of demand there would be. Yow. More than 200 people signed up for it. Some sent me notes in advance about their challenges. Budget cuts. Staff reductions. New technologies. New owners, partners or job duties. Staffers grieving, arguing, resisting.

Among other things, I taught about the importance of managing all the emotions that accompany change, so leaders can help staffers see possibilities instead of problems. Managers can’t simply ignore emotions or order people to stop feeling them.

But what about the YOUR emotions and how you manage them?

A study by business professors Sigal Barsade and Donald Gibson underscores the role of emotion in organizations. It’s called “Why Does Affect Matter in Organizations?”  “Affect” means emotions, moods, and dispositions. Registered users (free) can read an article about it at the Wharton School of Business Web site and download a pdf of the study. I examined the full paper and it is powerful.

The researchers crunch an array of studies on the role of emotion in organizations and conclude that “the evidence is overwhelming that experiencing and expressing positive emotions and moods tends to enhance performance at individual, group, and organizational levels.”  They found that emotion has an impact on “performance, decision-making, turnover, pro-social behavior, negotiation, conflict resolution, group dynamics and leadership.”


For managers, this is especially important, because the research also shows that your emotions are contagious. The people who work for you pick up on your emotions and your moods, and soon you’ve set the tone for the team, maybe without even knowing it. Think about what that means in times of change. If you are a person who is known to be moody, withdrawn, poker-faced, sarcastic or testy, you may be adding to your own change challenges. Your people are taking their cues from you.

Even worse, if you are negative, the people on your staff known for their positive energy may be the ones most likely to want to leave you. They’re the ones with hope and confidence that things are better elsewhere. The chronic complainers? They’ll stick with you.

Emotionally intelligent people are aware of their emotions, understand their impact, regulate themselves — and can also read and respond appropriately to the emotions of others. During change, that’s a full-time job, dear manager. To lead people into the future, you need to know them well enough to be able to shape your communication to their particular fears and hopes.

Regulating your emotions, developing strategies for dealing with others — it’s hard work. So hard that the researchers actually have a term for it: emotional labor. Smiling at cranky customers, keeping your cool when a colleague snaps at you, demonstrating optimism when you’re a little scared yourself — it is indeed emotional heavy-lifting.

The authors also point out that we do our best emotional work face-to-face, where we can read another person’s words, tone, volume and body language. Our likelihood of misreading a situation and a person is greatly increased by our use of e-mail or teleconferencing. If you prefer memo-sending or message-leaving to personal conversations, you may be diminishing the kind of results that positive emotional connections can produce.

One of the changes going on in many newsrooms is the move to mojo or backpack journalism, where a person serves as both reporter and photographer or videographer. That change can cause tremendous angst among the staff — fears about safety, quality, ethics, job security.

I recently asked a young backpack journalist, Heidi McGuire of Denver’s KUSA-TV, to talk about what backpackers need from their managers. So here on SuperVision, listen to how the concept of emotion plays into her response:

Note: If you’re receiving this via e-mail newsletter and have trouble viewing the video, please use the video player on the SuperVision page.

By the way, did you notice Heidi’s positive, caring tone, even as she talked about challenges? How do you sound when giving advice to your staff during change? Remember: You’re contagious.

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