Emotions can be infectious……

24th November 2017 was Black Friday, and hundreds of thousands of people were in London’s Oxford Street for the sales. It was not long after the multiple terror attacks across London but life had moved on and all was calm. That calm, it turned out, was quite superficial…

At 4.37pm, thousands of shoppers started to stampede, certain they were under attack. The Met Police mobilised its anti-terrorism emergency response, crowds were evacuated, and social media became filled with reports of gunshots, people claiming to have seen someone carrying a gun, and videos of people screaming as they ran. People posted photos of loved ones they couldn’t contact, worrying that they had been harmed. People’s worst fears, it seemed, had been confirmed.

The perplexing thing is, no real threat existed… No terrorists, no shots, no bomb, no danger. Nothing!

Within 1.5 hours, it was all over. Sixteen people were injured, yet it had all been a false alarm. The inquest into the incident discovered that the trigger for the mass panic was a minor scuffle on one of the underground station platforms. All it took was for the people nearby to assume the worst, then the fear and misinformation to became real and took over. Both passed quickly through the masses, as each person instinctively picked up on the emotion of those around them, so that what started as confusion on the platform had become terror by the time it was unleashed on the crowded streets.

This incident shows how quickly and unconsciously emotions can spread. We are hardwired to pick up on the emotions of others in between 8 and 40 thousandths of a second, so our brains automatically detect things like micro-changes in others’ facial expressions, tone of voice or physiology, and then, to save energy, draw inferences, take shortcuts or make snap judgments based on these tiny snippets of information. It is a capability that psychologists and philosophers call thin slicing.

The natural purpose of this capability is thought to be to enable smooth interactions and to facilitate mutual involvement and understanding. The problem is, very few of us realise how susceptible we are to it, or know how to inoculate ourselves.

As a leader, because your position of influence or power will tend to make you more infectious, you can afford to display emotions that could negatively impact others. Nor can you allow your own emotions to be dictated in this way.

I’ve long defined the ability to make appropriate choices as one of the hallmarks of emotionally intelligent leaders. This starts with the ability to manage emotions. Imagine a military leader who panicked under the slightest sign of threat, as the shoppers did that day – there would be no chance they could function effectively. Great leadership means being able to respond in appropriate and adaptive ways to whatever conditions or circumstances we face, and especially, to be able to do so under pressure.

This article demonstrates how important it is that leaders are aware of, and manage, the effects of emotional contagion in the workplace, which can otherwise be hugely detrimental to the productivity of their teams.

Read the Article: Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team

My Advice

It is unavoidable that emotion can have a powerful effect on any interaction, as though a second discussion was also taking place in parallel with the main conversation. Our brains are literally wired to sense other people’s feelings and react to them, making us all capable of catching and spreading emotions, both positive and negative, to the people around us – and this is especially so for leaders. Because of the knock-on impact to the performance of the people around you, I believe that managing emotions is at least as important as the technical skills you bring to work.

The route to improvement starts, as so often, with awareness. We must learn to increase our present-moment awareness so that we can become more intentional about our mood, as well as our actions. This enables us to interrupt our autopilot and notice more of the emotions that we exude towards others as well as those that we may be picking up from them. I recommend that, at the first sign of a negative emotion (your own or someone else’s), you momentarily pause and focus your attention at the emotional level. By consciously shifting awareness in this way, you should find that you can increase your control of the situation to stop negative emotions from gaining a hold.