Mood and Engagement Are Contagious

March 25, 2020

I used to think that my attitude and engagement affected me, but not other people. I could come to work in a bad mood or frustrated with work and if I did not tell anybody, no one would know. In my experience, most people suppose that employees are simply required to perform their job well and not make any big mistakes. Some might say, “It’s not my employer’s business whether I am enthused and happy or depressed and despondent, as long as I do my job.” In many ways, I thought my emotions were locked up inside. However, the evidence is compelling that emotions are as contagious as a cold or the flu. They spread freely to others in an organization.

Mood is Contagious

While it is true that job performance is important, there is a compelling body of research to show the ways a person’s mood impacts those around them. In a recent study by Fowler and Christakis, researchers looked at the impact of happiness or sadness on friends. They constructed a social network by connecting one friend to another friend and then measured the happiness or sadness of each person in the network. They found that:

  • If you have a friend that is happy, the probability that you will be happier goes up by 25%.
  • Happy friends cluster together, sad friends cluster together.

The problem with a person who lacks energy and enthusiasm is that their mood impacts others. They can bring others down or pick them up. Most people who are sick work hard not to spread their germs and infect others. But moods are even more infectious than germs.

My own experience shows this is true. A few years ago I was scheduled for a meeting with a CEO. The group I was working with came in early to plan our presentation. After we started our meeting someone came to the door and announced that our meeting with the CEO had been canceled. I asked why. The answer was, “It’s not a good day!” I said, “how do you know?”, to which he replied, “everybody knows!”

Engagement is Contagious

Recently, I did some research where I looked at the level of engagement of leaders and compared it to the level of engagement of their direct reports. Intuitively one would assume that if my boss is unengaged it does not necessarily mean my own disengagement would follow. But it turns out that 38% of leaders in the bottom quartile for personal engagement have direct report groups who are also in the bottom quartile.

Engaged Leaders and Direct Reports

Thirty-six percent of leaders in the top quartile have direct report groups who are in the top quartile as well. It’s not a surprise that the attitude of a boss impacts my attitude in the same way I am influenced by the happiness of my friends.

Leaders’ Moods and Engagement are Highly Contagious

So let’s look at this fact from a leadership perspective. What we know about leaders is that on the whole, they have far more influence on the moods of others than friends. When we looked at leaders who were uninspiring and who have Fatal Flaws, we found that employees who worked for them were only at the 9th percentile in terms of satisfaction and commitment. This basically means that they hated their jobs and were constantly frustrated at work. We also found that 51% of the people in that group were thinking of quitting.

Every Interaction Counts

Since doing this research, I have begun thinking about the fact that every interaction I have with other people can be inspiring and building, or discouraging and frustrating. We can build others up or tear them down. Many people have the impression that most of their interactions with others don’t really count, or that they are neutral. They believe there are a few times that something they say is important, and they only need to be on the top of their game for the special occasions that count. The more I look at the data and my own interactions with others, the more I am convinced that everything counts, and those neutral interactions actually negatively impact results.

Leaders need to be aware that every interaction can make a difference, every meeting can be inspiring, and every discussion can create a stronger commitment. When leaders understand this, they start to take advantage of every interaction. They look for ways to encourage, support, build and inspire. They become aware of the mood they bring to the office and the implications of being discouraged, angry or tired.  They understand they have tremendous influence on other people and that every interaction counts.

—Joe Folkman