“Want to See Me Make a Baby Cry?”
Those words shattered the early morning silence at the staff breakfast table. Becky, who was working junior high week at youth camp, looked up to see her middle-aged friend and colleague, Tanya, smiling. Because Tanya was known for being a practical joker, Becky just laughed, shook her head, and continued eating. “No, really, I can do it, and I won’t even have to touch them.” Intrigued, Becky responded, “If you can get one of the staff members to let you make their baby cry without touching them, I definitely want to see it!” Tanya grinned and set out to find the one parent everyone agreed would likely play along.
The Power of Emotions
In just a few minutes, Tanya returned with parent and baby (a 10-month-old boy) in tow. Tanya asked the parent to sit the baby in front of her on the table. After he was placed there and his attention was moved to Tanya’s face, she smiled, raised her eyebrows, gave a little wink to the crowd now formed around the picnic table, and immediately transformed her expression to one on the verge of tears. Within seconds, the little boy burst into tears! Then, just to prove her power over the moment, Tanya immediately brightened her expression, smiling and laughing. The little boy’s tears stopped, and his face lit up!
Emotions are Contagious—Even in Adults
While most of us would like to think we have more emotional self-control than the baby in our opening story, we might be (unpleasantly) surprised to find out otherwise. In both social and organizational studies, it’s been proven repeatedly that one person’s emotions and related behaviors can directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in others. In other words, adults are just as susceptible to the “crying face” and “smiling face” as the little guy at camp.
That means we must be aware of two critical aspects of emotional contagion: the emotions we are taking in and the emotions we are giving out.
Practicing Emotional Self-Control
Being aware of how emotional contagion works is important because it allows us to act before being infected by negative emotions and/or before we infect others. Here are three tips that may help:
- Focus on the facts (not the fear). We’ve all participated in a meeting where we identified a challenge or obstacle, and people started speculating and catastrophizing about what may happen next. And what did that lead to? A fear infection! That’s why, as a leader, it’s our job to re-direct that conversation to what we know, develop a plan to learn more as needed, and prioritize actions that will allow us to meet the challenge or remove the obstacle.
- Analyze once (don’t obsess). Bad decisions and mistakes happen, and we know that. So, why do we often blow them out of proportion by going over them again and again in our minds and/or re-visiting them in multiple meetings? That approach can’t take back the decision or mistake, but it can release a contaminant—one that suggests we are incompetent and often leads to paralysis by analysis. Rather than obsessing, we can conduct one thorough analysis of what went wrong (e.g., poor decision-making process, poorly executed communication) and install guardrails that help us to avoid those dangers in the future.
- Respond (don’t react). Let’s be honest, we all have that one person in our organization who knows how to “get our goat,” and when they do, we are baited into a litany of negative emotions, including anxiety, defensiveness, impatience, and anger, to name a few. The best way to avoid that emotional contagion is to follow the advice of a dear Ethos friend (Richard) who said, “Never let someone know where your goat is tied up.” But if they already have that knowledge, the next best step is to respond rather than react. Here’s the difference. Reacting is when we unconsciously experience an emotional trigger and behave in a way that is driven by that unconscious trigger. Responding is when we notice how we are feeling and consciously decide how we will act next. Responding doesn’t mean we won’t use our emotions; it just ensures we will use them wisely!
Time to Reflect: Which of the three ways to practice emotional self-control do you need to apply in your leadership?