Great Leaders Are Positively Infectious

Jan 24, 2019

By Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD

A business simulation experiment at Yale University gave two groups of people the assignment of deciding how much of a bonus to give each employee from a set fund of money. Each person in the group was to allot as large a bonus as possible for certain employees, while being fair to the entire employee population. In one group, the conflicting agendas led to stress and tension, while in the second group, everyone ended up feeling good about the result.

The groups’ different emotional responses were created by “plants”—actors who had been secretly assigned to manipulate people’s feelings about the project. In the first group, the actor was negative and downbeat, and in the second, positive and upbeat. The emotional tone of the meetings followed the lead of each actor—although none of the group members understood how or why those particular feelings had emerged.

Here’s why the result is important for all leaders—and critical for change agents:

  1. All decisions are emotional. According to the neurologist and author Antonio Damasio, the center of our conscious thought (the prefrontal cortex) is so tightly connected to the emotion-generating amygdala, that no one makes decisions based on pure logic. Damasio’s research makes it clear that unconscious mental processes drive our decision making, and logical reasoning is really no more than a way to justify emotional choices.
  2. Emotions are infectious. Like the common cold, emotions are literally contagious. You can “catch” an emotion just by being in the same room with someone. Emotional contagion is primarily a nonverbal process. And since emotional leads tend to flow from the most powerful person in a group to the others, when the leader is angry or depressed, negative body language can spread like a virus to the rest of the team, affecting attitudes and lowering energy. Conversely, happy and buoyant leaders are likely to make the entire team feel upbeat and energized.
  3. People watch your every move. During a major change, people will be on high alert—constantly looking to their leader for emotional cues. If you stay relaxed and optimistic, your team members will be more positive and more productive. If you become upset, depressed or angry, those emotions will be replicated by your team and expressed in a variety of less-than-optimal results including higher absenteeism and lower productivity.
  4. Body language says it all. Two pieces of advice: never promote an initiative you don’t believe in. And always be as transparent and candid as possible. Doing so will help your body align authentically to reflect that openness. Even then you will need to pay close attention to your nonverbal signals. If you slouch, look down, clasp your hands in front of you, sway back and forth, or sound tentative, these behaviors (even if they are only nervous habits) can come across as uncertainty or insincerity.
  5. Positive motivation is most effective. Leaders use two sets of emotions to motivate change: negative and positive. In “crisis motivation” and “burning platform” rationales, the basic idea is to frighten employees into accepting change. There is no doubt that negative emotions can be effective. Fear, anger, and disgust all trigger physiological responses that prepare the body for quick and specific actions.

But far more frequently, organizational change is neither quick nor specific. Rather, it is continuous, evolutionary, and often strangely ambiguous in nature. Therefore, it requires innovative and flexible approaches to its management. When a leader is trying to effect this kind of change negative, emotions aren’t much help at all. In fact, negativity significantly diminishes problem-solving abilities and narrows, rather than expands, creative thinking. That why today’s most effective change agents focus primarily on positive emotions that motivate people to commit to change and to act on that commitment.

Daniel Goleman’s book The New Leaders starts with this statement: “Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal. Great leadership works through the emotions.”

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD is an executive coach, leadership consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is the author of The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt How You Lead, and most recently, The Truth About Lies in the Workplace: How to Spot Liars and What to Do About Them. For more information, contact [email protected] or visit: