Emotional Contagion: How a Leader’s Emotional State Affects Productivity

Trevor Woods
4 min readDec 9, 2020
By Markus Spiske via Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago my wife was getting the kids ready for school. I have four kids, and two of my rug rats were attending school remotely and two had to be taken to school. Typically, while she prepares breakfast, finds homework, attends to my 7-year-old’s wardrobe crisis, and helps my middle son find his glasses, I am getting ready for work, scraping off windshields (depending on the weather), and helping where I can.

This day was different. First, Lyndsey had an extra task on her plate. She had to make sure our two oldest sons were set-up for school with the proper automation on top of everything else she was doing. She can only juggle so much — there was screaming, crying, whining, and whimpering. Secondly, I was on the cusp of a big project at work, so my sleep was comprised of me “mentally preparing” for it all night. I was running on about 2–3 hours of sleep.

I wasn’t myself that morning, I didn’t have my coffee, and didn’t really talk to Lyndsey or the kids in-depth about anything. I spared the usual, “good morning pleasantries” — it was just one of those days.

Lyndsey could tell I was cantankerous that morning. She was using emotional energy toward worrying about me. Like Lyndsey, the kids could tell I wasn’t my usual self as well. When I am “out of sorts,” the kids frequently ask their mom, “Is Daddy mad?” The overarching mood of the family became irritable like my emotions were rubbing off on everybody.

As it turns out, they were.

As the leader of my family, I set the tone and create the environment. It does not take a research study to reveal that stress in any environment lessens productivity — we all have had personal experiences with crisis and can attest to this. However, the research does show strong correlative relationships between stress and productivity.

By Andreas Klassen via Unsplash

What my family was experiencing was the emotional contagion of my irritability that morning. By definition, it was “neural mirroring.” Mirror Neurons cause us to mimic the behaviors of those in our tribes. From a biological perspective, it’s simply a survival mechanism.

You see this a lot in the animal world. One antelope sees a lion and takes off causing the entire herd to react the same way. Although this puts it simplistically, the more complex emotional transference we experience derives from the same cause and effect relationship as the antelope herd.

Mirror Neurons cause us to mimic the behaviors of those in our tribes. From a biological perspective, it’s simply a survival mechanism.

Over the course of the last 30 years, Emotional Intelligence, which encompasses self-regulation and self-awareness, has not just become a buzz phrase. It has become a pillar of many companies’ leadership development models.

A recent study from Yale University compared the emotions between workgroups. Members of groups with positive emotional contagion experienced improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and stronger perceived task performance. Conversely, workgroups with negative emotional contagion experienced the opposite.

Leaders should understand that their emotional state can profoundly affect their work group’s environment. Leaders act as emotional barometers, providing unconscious ‘cues’ that set the tone for their people. Leaders should take concerted efforts to display positivity and optimism. At a leader’s core, they aim to inspire consensus among their people to accomplish shared objectives. How efficient and effective that endeavor ends up being can depend on the leader’s emotional state.

A Few Strategies

  1. Mentally prepare yourself for the day. It doesn’t mean getting up two hours early. Maybe 15 minutes in the car listening to an interesting podcast before heading into work will do the trick, but taking time to cultivate a positive mindset and destroy negative self-talk will do wonders. I also sit and think about my major tasks for the day by creating a mental checklist. It’s almost like doing a mental rehearsal. It’s a little trick I learned watching “The Last Dance.” Thanks, Michael Jordan!
  2. Meditation. Look, I laughed at this years ago, but it works. Some simple breathing exercises, clearing your mind, and being in the moment can provide clarity and de-stress you in profound ways. I’m serious, try it.
  3. Approach your day with gratitude and humility. I often think about what is important in my life (family, friends, lessons I’ve learned). I take time to appreciate what I have. As a matter of fact, I do this every day. It’s important, it keeps you grounded. The hardest part about this strategy is teaching it to children. If you have some you understand, if you don’t….well, you will, just wait.

Good luck, Leaders!



Trevor Woods

I’m a Father, Husband, and Veteran. I write about Personal Growth, Mental Health, and Careers!