S1:E4 – Emotional Contagion: How To Not Get Stuck With A Bad Mood – Yours Or Someone Else’s!


It’s invisible and highly contagious and odds are you will catch it. This episode is not about coronavirus rather it is about something much more contagious, our emotions! Tune in to hear about how easily we catch the emotions of others and why as a leader, your emotions are the most contagious of all.



Don’t forget to check out my You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


Bridgette: All right, welcome everybody to the resilient leadership podcast. And my name is Bridgette Theurer. And today as always, I am joined by my trustee co-Host Irvine. Irvine, how are you? 

Irvine: Bridgette, I’m doing well. Thank you so much. How about yourself? How are things being?

Bridgette: They have been good, but listen, I have a question for you. 

Irvine: Go on.

Bridgette: Given the topic today,…

Irvine: Yes.

Bridgette: Emotional contagion. I want to know, what mood are you in?

Irvine: Today’s mood. I woke up, I have to confess a little apprehensive and you know what? I couldn’t pinpoint it, which is interesting because we’ll get into this a little bit between a mood and an emotion, but yeah, my mood today is a little apprehensive, and I’m not quite sure where it’s coming from. How about yourself?

Bridgette: Well, that is so interesting. I woke up in a pretty good mood, but then a flurry of activity ensued and it was anxious activity. So I think I caught a little bit of that, but yeah, but doing well and spending time with you, I think will elevate my mood. So, let’s dive into this great conversation.

Irvine: Let’s do it. 

Bridgette: So what do you want to say to kind of tea it up? Like, how do you want to sort of set the stage, shall we say?

Irvine: Well, it’s interesting because today’s episodes on emotional contagion and the subtitle we’re using is how not to get stuck in a bad mood, either yours or someone else’s. So let’s just set this up by really plugging into an experience I am sure we have all had. So I just want everyone just to take a moment and to think about this. You’re sitting in a meeting room, and you’re waiting for the boss. And the mood is good. There’s a little joking, you’re talking about the game, you’re talking about what you did for the weekend, and then your boss walks in and they’re not happy. They’re upset. And all of a sudden, without even a blink of an eye, you begin to feel tension in your body, everyone begins to kind of shifting their eyes, kind of looking at each other, and then 10 minutes later, the mood of that room has totally shifted. Everyone is feeling the anxiety of the leader.

Bridgette: Oh, been there. Been there, done that. I got that T-Shirt.

Irvine: And then think about this you’re at home and all of a sudden, your kid walks in. It’s result time from an exam, and they have aced the test, and they’re so happy, they can’t even believe it. And what happens? As they walk through the room, you don’t even have to be told, you can just feel you catch the mood that they’re in. You catch the feeling of joy and vice versa, if it hasn’t gone so well, you don’t even need to ask because you kind of feel it, even if they’re trying to hide it, you can feel some of that tension.

Bridgette: Yes. You pick it up. We have incredible antenna, shall we say when it comes to picking up the emotions, the moods of the people around us, particularly the people that matter the most to us. 

Irvine: Absolutely. Yes. We spent more time with him so we are better observers of the nuances in their behaviors.

Bridgette: Yes. And we’re tuning into it at a level, even beneath our conscious awareness. 

Irvine: Yes, absolutely. 

Bridgette: So, maybe let’s start with, before we kind of dive into emotions and their impact and the leader’s role, the neuroscience behind this. Because this is fascinating, right?

Irvine: Oh yes. Totally fascinating. Because  without some of these neuroscientific developments and discoveries, we actually wouldn’t understand as much as we do today. We’ve kind of understood that yeah, we catch emotions, but really what’s happening in the brain. And to do that let’s just make a wonderful little trip to the city of Parma in Northern Italy, famous for its cheese, but now famous for a neuroscientific discovery that has really laid open, why this emotional contagion can happen. And what happened there was very interesting. It was in the beginning of the 1990s and there was some research done on trying to map out the different parts of the brain and what those different parts actually did. We forget that brain science and neuroscience is a very new science, so at that stage they were mapping them out and they were using macaque monkeys for this because their brain structure is very similar to human structure. And they had a special cap and they wear the cap and whenever different parts of the brain would go off a buzzer and a light would go off.

Bridgette: Interesting.

Irvine: Now, the macaque monkey’s favourite food are peanuts. And one day one of the scientists was eating a peanut, because he was a little hungry eating some of the monkey’s peanuts, and all of a sudden there was a light and a noise went off and the scientist said, what’s that the monkey’s not doing anything he’s just sitting there. And so then he kept eating the peanuts and every time it did, it went off in the same brain region called the F-5, the which is our motor cortex, so when we’re moving. And what they began to discover there was that the grasping, the movement of the scientist and eating the nuts was also conveyed to the monkey, and it was as if the monkey was eating, even though they were not, they were just the action. But even in watching the action, the light went off. 

Bridgette: That’s fascinating.

Irvine: And what they discovered was this part of the brain had a group of neurons which we began to call mirror neurons, which opened the door to our understanding of emotional cotangent, actually of empathy as well.

Bridgette: Fascinating stuff.

 Irvine: Bridgette, I know you’ve looked into this research as well. So why do you think that discovery was so key?

Bridgette: Well, first of all, thanks for sharing the details because I knew about the discovery, but I did not know about the setting and exactly how it happened and so forth. But yeah, we’ve known for a while now, well, a while, like a decade maybe, this discovery. So not a long time in the grander scheme of things, but we’ve known about these mirror neurons that are brain cells that get activated when we feel something or do something and when we witness somebody else feeling or doing something and so it explains what we’ve always known anecdotally, those stories you told at the beginning. That makes sense now from a neuroscience point of view, because our brains are literally lighting up and mirroring what’s going on in the other person’s brain. And I think it’s such a lovely discovery because it’s a huge part of our humanity.

Irvine: Absolutely. 

Bridgette: Why is it that we can connect with each other so powerfully and understand one another, and it’s really this phenomena of mirror neurons. But of course, that also explains why we catch not so great moods.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yes. Well, before we move on to the not so great ones, this mimicking, which I think we mentioned at the beginning, it just comes naturally too. We do it without even thought. Why do you think that’s so helpful? Why do you think mimicking others is so helpful both as a leader and just in general?

Bridgette: Yeah. I think it’s about resonance. So if I am a leader and I’m trying to influence you, or I’m trying to understand you, or I’m trying to persuade you or move you or anything, if I can’t connect with you in a resonant way, if I’m speaking and talking in one way, that’s completely different from you. It doesn’t land. If you’ve ever tried to, for example, do some brainstorming or strategic planning or creative thinking and blue sky thinking with a resigned group of people, good luck. So I think it…

Irvine: I have been there.

Bridgette: Yeah. So it’s important for resonance. And the thing is, is if we understand this, we can use it to our advantage to build trust and connection and recognize that this part of our humanity is so important to connection, but also so important to leadership and resilience. So, let’s dive into this idea of emotions a little bit more, and I know this is like your wheelhouse. You’ve been studying this and teaching and training on this. So I guess the first thing I want to kind of ask you, we touched on it in a previous episode, but I think for our listeners, it would be good to make this distinction, which is how do you think emotions are different from, and similar to moods?

Irvine: It’s a really great question because I think cologically we use the words almost interchangeably, however, I think there is a nuance and an important difference in them. I think the best way to think of why do we have emotions at all? One of the grandfather of emotional research, Paul Eckman, I think he says, which I think is really useful is that emotions developed throughout evolution to help on our welfare and to signal to us something important is happening. And so these emotions help us kind of convey something important is there. So, we’re sad because we’ve experienced loss, or we’re angry because something threatens us, or we’re happy because something enjoyable is happening. Now, emotions are very, very rapid they’re quick and they don’t last long, and I think this is a great distinction between emotion and a mood.

A mood lasts much longer, and then I think the second distinction that I would make is that the cause of an emotion is very clear. We’re very clear of triggers. You walk in and you see someone who’s a dear friend, you haven’t seen them for years and all of a sudden, you may have two emotions, you may have great happiness and then a little bit of sadness as well as you think of all these memories that keep flooding back. And there’s a trigger there for that. Whereas this morning I woke up and I was just in an anxious mood and I didn’t know where it came from. I don’t know ,why am I anxious? I’m not anxious about recording the episode today, I’m enjoying that. I’ve nothing today that would really make me believe, and I was a little confused, but that was my mood. And so I think that’s a really nice way of signalling the difference between both. 

Bridgette: Yeah. And it’s important for leaders because we’re always leading and living out of a mood. Always. And sometimes that mood is perfectly spot on for what we’re trying to do, and sometimes it’s not, but it’s always there and it’s kind of like the climate versus as you said, emotions move through quickly. So it’s like a thunderstorm that comes and moves on.

Irvine: Absolutely. 

Bridgette: So, where do emotions come from? Because I think we have this belief that emotions are always tied to very clear event, but they can come from other places too. Where do they come from?

Irvine: When you think about it, so the most general cause of an emotion is there’s a triggering moment. So something happens just like you say, and it causes an emotion. So we hear news that a loved one has died. It causes sadness within us, there’s a clear cause and effect there. But also, you know, emotions can be come from even thinking about something, thinking about a past event. And it occurs in emotion. I love going to movies, which is being one of my great sadness’s of the pandemic is not being able to go to a movie theatre, but we go to movies, which evoke emotions within us. And they’re stories. They’re not reality, but they have the power to cause an emotions. We wake up from dreams because an emotion is evoked. So there’s all different types of causes of emotions but one of another interesting area is that emotions can be caused by mimicking the emotions of others. Just by looking at their face, we can mimic the muscles that have been moved in the face, and that causes the emotion within us…

Bridgette: To me that is fascinating.

Irvine: Which is fascinating. Yes.

Bridgette: So Irvine, you probably read this because again, this is something that you’ve studied and taught a lot about. But I remember reading one study where they had subjects put a pencil in their mouth and depending on how they were holding that pencil, it could produce a frown or a smile. And if it produced a frown, then their mood shifted.

Irvine: So what we know, like for example, here we’re talking about two emotion, sadness and happiness. And so we know like just take happiness, happiness is the movement of two muscles for genuine happiness. One is kind of the smile in the face and there’s a muscle being activated, and when the pencil is in the mouth, that muscle is activated in the side of the cheeks. But then also it’s the lines in the eyes because the muscles around the eyes as well are activated and that pencil movement helps us do that. We used to think, emotion is caused, there’s a trigger, we feel the emotion, but now we know an emotion’s also caused just by moving the muscles. And that’s important because what’s happening in emotional contagion of course, is that even without us noticing we’re mimicking those facial muscles and causing that emotion to happen. 

Bridgette: And the good news though, is that we can shift our mood and our emotions by changing the way we’re shaping ourselves. 

Irvine: Absolutely. Yes.

Bridgette: By changing our facial expression. Just smiling, oddly enough, can sometimes be enough to shift you into a different place. But even the way we are sitting, if we’re slumped, if we’re talk… anyways, we don’t have to be stuck in a mood or emotion and the easiest way sometimes to shift it is through the body.

Irvine: Yeah. I love this Bridgette, because so often we often think like emotions are a mind game, and I think we forget, and so often in leadership, I don’t know if you feel this as well, is that it’s from the neck upwards and we forget that we’re attached to a body and that body gives us incredible information about the emotion we’re in. So when we’re triggered an emotion, we begin to feel that motion in our body before we even are consciously aware of it. And being able to recognize that and then to use the body to shift emotion is incredibly important.

Bridgette: Well, let’s maybe talk about the leaders role in all this, because you’re explaining why they’re contagious, and there’s no doubt about that. Both from a neuroscience point of view and from our personal experiences. But let’s get into the leader role and the fact that the leaders emotions and moods are the most contagious of all. 

Irvine: So Bridget, why do you think that is? Why do you think leaders emotions are so contagious? 

Bridgette: Well, because I think in ways that most of us as leaders don’t appreciate, our followers are tuning into us in ways that are just fascinating. They’re listening to the tone of our voice. They’re reading into our emails, The tenor and tone of our text. They’re on a zoom call, they’re paying attention to our energy. We talked in a previous episode about the quality of our presence. They’re paying attention to that. Bottom line is because a leader’s authority and power is so important in our lives, we’re looking for clues. Good day, bad day.

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: Because that’s going have a big impact on me. And I don’t think we often appreciate the extent to which people are tuning into us. So that’s why the leaders moves and emotions are most contagious of all. Now that’s said, I’m curious what you think about this Irvine, because you leaders are human beings. They have good days and they have bad days. They have good moods and they have bad moods. And are we saying that you can never have a bad mood or emotion as a leader? What are we saying there? What do you think? 

Irvine: No, I think it’s a great question because I actually, there is a fallacy out there, and I’m sure you’ve heard it. I’ve heard in many coaching sessions that that leaders feel they always have to be on. That there can’t be an off day, which is ridiculous. We pay sports people millions of dollars And sometimes they have on off day as well. But I think what’s important is two things. One is that, it’s the ability, first of all, for the leader to recognize, it’s not that you’re not allowed out to have an off day, but I think it’s important to recognize you are having an off day. And I think that’s fine. And I think people appreciate the fact that you’re in that zone.

So to go into a meeting and say, you know what, I know this is supposed to be a creative brainstorming, but I’m just not in that zone today so you may need to help me. It doesn’t necessarily mean as well that they are going to be able to change that instantaneously as well. But I think first of all, the awareness that it’s there and then the ability to be able to express that I think is incredibly helpful and also an important message to people that you don’t have to be on the whole time, but it’s important to recognize when you’re not and to acknowledge it.

Bridgette: Yeah. And I think if you are, let’s say really distracted because you just got some really tough news on the home front, people are going pick up on that. 

Irvine: Absolutely. 

Bridgette: And wouldn’t it be better to just say, hey, you’re going notice that I’m really distracted. I’ve gotten some news we’re dealing with it and all that, I just didn’t want you to misinterpret it as anything other than that. And so good. That’s so helpful I hope for our listeners to hear, because there’s no way we can always be in a great mood and all the moods and emotions that human beings experience are valuable because they inform us. And the point is, can we be informed by our moods and emotions as opposed to driven by them? 

Irvine: Absolutely. 

Bridgette: That’s  the distinction.

Irvine: And I just want to say something as well Bridgette, there. So often we get into, again, one of my pet peeves is that we have begun to label emotions as good or bad. And so it’s like, some emotions are bad, we don’t want these emotions. And I always say, that’s just not a helpful way. Emotions just are, and there’s a cause, and I think it’s an opportunity for us to reflect and then we have a choice. Are we going use this emotion constructively or destructively? And I think that’s the real choice of a leader knowing kind of where they’re at and then what they can do with that emotion.

Bridgette: And it goes back to those fundamental building blocks that we talked about in the first episode. Self-awareness, so what mood am I in? Then self-regulation, how will I manage it? And then self-definition, ultimately, how do I really want to be as a leader long term? All those are important. There’s something that, that you said that triggered this thought in me that I want to share with listeners. And that is that we’re talking about how leaders emotions are the most contagious and they set the tone, the emotional tone for the organization. But here’s why that really, really matters. And I learned this from a book and I wish I could remember what it was called, but I’ll never forget it. 

And it said the following, the reason moods and emotions matter, and aren’t the soft stuff that people normally think of them as is because they are predispositions for action. Meaning that every mood or emotion shapes a particular behaviour action. So for example, employees who are in the mood of resignation don’t see possibilities, Or a team that is, let’s say, highly anxious and worked up doesn’t think as clearly and creatively. Or like we talked about last time, if you’re resigned, or if you’re fearful, you might not take risks. So it’s important that we recognize that what we want to get done in organizations with our teams and with each other is dependent a lot on the mood of us and the mood of the organization as a whole.

Irvine:. So, that brings up a really interesting point then Bridgette, so knowing the power, and I think at times, leaders, I think forget the simple power they have in setting the emotional tone. So, speak a little bit more of that, about their role for a leader in setting that emotional tone.

Bridgette: Well, I think I can do that best by sharing an example, and it actually just came to my memory again. It was the most profound example of what you’re asking that I’ve ever seen. And it actually happened back in 2008 when I was observing a senior team and they were dealing with the great recession. And their industry was getting hit really hard so they were having a meeting to talk about how they were going to handle it. And I had the privilege of coaching the leader in advance of that and I asked him, what mood do you want to bring to this conversation? And what mood do you think they’re in? And he said, well, I think a lot of them are feeling resigned, like there’s not much we can do, but that’s not what I see. I see an opportunity.

So we discussed how he could give them some prework to think about it, open up some possibilities, meet the them, where they were, but ultimately kind of lead them towards a more hopeful place. And do you know, watching that meeting literally what happened is, as everybody walked in, I could see a resigned group of people, shoulder slumped, serious facial expressions, no humour. And as they began to talk and work their way through it, it shifted and they left like totally different people. And therefore they were able to think and work together creatively to meet this challenge head on. And I’ll never forget that because t was in a span of an hour and a half, that’s what happened.

Irvine: Wow. That’s such a powerful story, I think we forget that. We forget that basis in self-awareness and then this ability is skilfully done to really shift the emotional tone of a room or a group of people. So fascinating.

Bridgette: And how important it is, because remember you can’t take a resigned group of people and get them excited and jazz, there has to be some kind of shifting that’s going on inside you and inside them. All right, so Irvine, I think it’s really important for our listeners to leave with a practice, we’re always committed to that. So what is something they can practice themselves that will really help them with emotional contagion?

Irvine: So one of the things that I love to think about is that every day we pass different, what I would like to call thresholds doorways, we make movements. And one, of course the movements is we move from a home to work and work to home. And even if your work is in your home, you’re still making a movement at maybe the dining room table where your computer’s set up, but it’s still a threshold. And I think at times we do that mindlessly. And I think a practice that we could do is to be more intentional and mindful about those movements. And I’ve got four steps that a person could do as they move, say from home to work and work to home. The first step is just to centre yourself to take maybe 30 seconds and just to breathe and to be aware that you are making a movement.

And the second step is just to pay attention. So pay attention, what are you feeling in your body? This at this moment, if it was an emotion or a mood, could you name it? And then as you think about that, is it connected to anything? If it’s anxiety, are you anxious about a meeting or, or a phone call you have to make? Are you anxious about coming home? Is there something in home life at the moment? And then the third step is just to acknowledge that. Just to say, you know, rather than to label it good or bad, just say, wow, that’s information. I’m really anxious about that phone call and that’s okay. And then the fourth step is to visualize, so often we think about what could go wrong. And I always like to say what could go right? 

What if this was a great phone call? What if it was a great conversation? What would that look like? What would you notice? And then is there any shift you have to make? What would you have to shift so that you could come in with the best energy you possibly could? And I think in total that could take, you know, three or four minutes and I think it’s really powerful both as you enter into work and enter into home or shift from one place to the other. And I think that it’s based on, you know, some powerful things we’ve talked about this self-awareness first of all, and then the ability to, to self-management.

Bridgette: That’s such a beautiful practice. I haven’t really heard you talk before about the idea of thresholds and I love that. To think about in any given day we’re crossing thresholds all day long, and can we be mindful of the mood that we’re taking into that next room, so to speak, and check in with ourselves, and be compassionate with ourselves, but also be very aware. Because the mood we bring really matters, for reasons that I hope are clear as a result of this conversation. What a great time talking about this with you Irvine, thank you so, so much for sharing your insights. And I don’t know. I think that’s it, is that all we want to say?

Irvine: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s we’ve covered a lot today and, and really got to the core of a phenomena we all experienced and hopefully we’ve made able to lift a little bit of the lid on really what’s happening as we catch the emotions of others.

Bridgette: And you know what’s on tap for next time, is an episode on empathy and are we getting it wrong? So I hope our listeners will tune in to that episode because it’s got some counterintuitive ideas about empathy that we really look forward to sharing with all of you. So we hope you had a good time having this conversation with Irvine and I, and we look forward to seeing you on our next episode, please spread the word if you find this helpful, subscribe and we just look forward to joining with you next time. Thank you so much. 

Irvine: Thanks Bridgette.

Bridgette: Irvine, thank you.

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