Leaders Beware: Your Actions are More Contagious Than You Know
There is a day etched permanently in my memory. It started as a typical day, getting to work before 7 am to see how the night shift had gone and getting the first shift of the pressroom up and going. All was fine until about noon when I got a rather cryptic call to come to a meeting in a building off-site at 1 pm.
I was curious as I walked into the meeting and even more so when we were instructed to sign a non-disclose agreement. Signing it meant that we would risk our job if we shared what we would learn in the meeting. An ominous mood seeped into the room.
For a good reason. The group assembled were those who were being asked to do a daunting task that no one had the stomach for. We were the group chosen to close a 1,200-employee division at the site in under 90 days. The news took our collective breaths away. It was clear that the decision was firm and that we were going to have to step up and do this seemingly impossible work in the best way possible.
Emotions were surging through me. I was shocked, as I hadn’t seen this coming. I was outraged. This division had been built from the ground up by the employees that were about to lose their jobs. They were not given a voice in the decision or the chance to turn things around. I was heartbroken, as I knew the loss of this many jobs in a community of 16,000 would be devastating. I was daunted by the amount of work that would need to be done in the next few months.
It was the end of the day shift as we left the meeting. I walked through the plant, up the steel steps to my office on the manufacturing mezzanine, got my things, and quickly exited. Not a word to anyone. I just left as quickly as I could.
Little did I know that I was about to learn a leadership lesson that sticks with me yet today!
As I got my composure and returned the following day, every single person I encountered asked me what was wrong. There was a sense of unease on the floor that typically hummed along.
I was puzzled as I had not said one single word. What I learned was that my behavior had. People saw me walk in that afternoon with my head held low. They noticed that I didn’t close out the shift as I usually did but instead made a hasty exit. Felt that something was “off” as I returned from a meeting.
My behavior was contagious. And with minimal interaction and no words — people had “caught” my concern and worry.
As leaders, we have this effect all the time. However, from team leaders to CEOs, leaders in every role often fail to notice this about themselves and the position. Once you step into a leadership role, you become extraordinarily contagious. Not with infectious diseases such as COVID or the common cold. With other things that are a bit more ephemeral.
As a leader, the people who report to you observe what you do and say with great scrutiny. They monitor your words, actions, tone of voice, and body language. They are alert to what you do and perhaps even more so, what you don’t do.
They are searching for clues as to the norms of being on this team, what is allowed, what is expected, and what is frowned upon. They recognize the power differential, as you can make assignments, shape their work and work environment, and make decisions that impact their career and livelihood.
As leaders, we have two powerful ways to communicate. There is what we say. And there is what we do. A trap many fall into is failing to understand that what we do is far more powerful than what we say.
As Gary Calleo, a manufacturing leader I worked with, used to say:
“People hear what you say. They see what you do. Seeing is believing.”
Even with congruence between their words and actions, leaders often fail to understand this one fundamental truth. What is on the “inside” (how they are feeling at the moment) gets communicated, even without any verbal interaction. Even though not visible, your emotional state is highly contagious.
More often than not, the patterns in your mood, affect, and demeanor shapes the work culture of your team.
As leaders, if you are:
· Optimistic, your team will be too
· Pessimistic your team will be too
· Respectful, your team will be too
· Disrespectful, your team will be too
· Quality conscious, your team will be too
· Resourceful, your team will be too
People pick up the energy of the other people around them. And especially so with leaders. Scientists call this “mirroring,” and it is a deeply rooted human behavior. (Want to learn more about mirroring? Click here.)
Armed with this knowledge, those in leadership roles can make some conscious choices. They can become more self-aware, understanding that what they feel on the inside is showing up on the outside, no matter how much they attempt to mask it. They can develop skills in releasing emotions in safe and productive ways, not allowing their emotions to run roughshod over those around them. They can strive to role-model the very things they want to have more of in their workplaces, knowing that others will mirror their actions.
A simple exercise we do in our leadership development courses can help you turn into your inner state. Everyone “checks in” and picks a number from 1 (low) to 5 (high) to note how they are feeling right now. Doing this daily builds the skill of identifying your current state — and just noticing is the very first step.
As you get more emotionally attuned, you are better able, as a leader, to address what is causing your lower mood states, build on what pulls you up the scale, and take caution not to allow your lower mood states to infect those around you.
Effective leaders know that what they say matters. They also know that what they do matters. Even more importantly, they know that what they choose not to do may matter even more. They understand deeply that having a keen self-awareness can help them monitor their “emotional tone” — and be more intentional in what they want those around them to “catch.”