Emotions Are Contagious

Tony Schwartz wrote a fantastic post on HBR today on Ten principles to live by in today’s complex world. All of them are spot on, so read the whole thing, but I’ll focus on one of them that jumped out at me:

Emotions are contagious, so it pays to know what you’re feeling.

I’ve been touting the value of emotional intelligence for a long time. Coming from the conflict resolution field, it makes sense, because in working withe people who were mired in conflict, emotions were sure to be unleashed. But that is the more dramatic side of emotional intelligence–responding to someone who is expressing intense anger, or dealing with the grief of past violence or war.

Those are the exceptions, though. What you deal with on a daily basis is the impact of much more subtle emotional dynamics. You’re annoyed. You’re frustrated. You’re feeling a bit downtrodden. You’re scared of what might happen with your client. You’re unhappy with the way your significant other has been treating you. These kinds of emotions swirl within us as we go about our meetings and conference calls and memo-writing, and unfortunately, most of us are not particularly aware of it. In fact, if anything, we’re told to push that stuff aside so we can focus on work.

But emotions are contagious. Those around you feel it and can internalize it, even if you’re not  expressing it overtly. So pay attention to your emotions. One of the biggest lessons I got out of Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence work was that most of EI is about awareness of your own emotions, not whether or not you express them. Knowing what you’re feeling allows you to make choices about the way you interact with people. Maybe when you’re feeling downtrodden you’ll try to stay away from colleagues for a bit, so they don’t catch it. And if you need to be around people, maybe you’ll summon some energy to re-focus on something positive so you don’t spread you’re own negative stuff to other people.

It’s not about being positive all the time or “putting on a happy face.” But it is about being aware of what’s inside you and acknowledging the impact you have on others (even if that’s not what you intended). Leadership is a system capacity to shape the future. So “leaders” (all of us) understand how their emotional states impact those around them.

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  1. 13.07.2011 at 11:06 am

    Emotional Intelligence is such a critical issue and is so often overlooked.

    One of my most life-changing experiences was taking a three-day immersion course called Emotional Intelligence for Personal Leadership by IHHP. It included a 360 assessment of me by my friends, family, coworkers and superiors. It was a pivotal point in my personal and professional life where things changed. I walked away with tangible, hands-on tactics on how to manage an emotional highjack, improve the core competencies of EI and clarification of intention versus impact.

    Here’s one of my “aha” takeaways: We confuse impact for intent. We judge ourselves by our intention. We judge others by impact. We feel before we think. Emotions often come before thoughts. Managing those emotions help us think more logically.

    Our emotions are contagious! Managing them effectively is one of the keys to success!