Leadership and the Art of Smiling – Part 2

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So, if you have read Part 1 of this blog, you will know that emotions are transmitted from one person to another at an unconscious level, influenced by our biology, due to the design of our brain and body.

As I asked previously, how many times have you walked into the morning’s briefing and could immediately see that it was going to be ‘one of those days’?  The boss was scowling, you could hear it in his/her voice and it seemed to be spreading around the room.  By the end of the meeting, everyone walked out of the room in a grumpy mood. 

But then other days, the ‘energy’ just flows.  Everyone is laughing, that usually long meeting flies by and, for a change, so much gets done by the group.  Can you reliably recreate this second version in your unit, given it happens unconsciously?  Yes, you can.

First, those who are less expressive have a tendency to change internally to a greater extent than those who are more expressive, with the less expressive coming into alignment with the more animated person, rather than vice versa. 

Think about someone who is the ‘life of the party’ and how they can buoy everyone or vice versa, that ‘downer’ that no one wants around because they seem to leave a stream of social malaise in their wake.  He or she with the biggest emotional state will have the greatest influence, with the more reserved person being unconsciously encouraged to come into alignment. 

Second, susceptibility has been shown to be positively correlated with sensitivity to others and self-esteem, while negatively associated with self-assertiveness and alienation.  Therefore, a person who is more sensitive to the moods and emotions of others as well as someone with higher self-esteem will be more predisposed to be influenced by the life of the party, whereas those who are more self-assertive or alienated will be less swayed. 

It has also been shown that emotional contagion is unrelated to masculinity, which suggests that even in a male-dominated military environment, it still occurs at the same rate.  Further, the prevailing mood can have an impact on group judgements and, consequently, outcomes, by influencing the discussion leading up to the decisions and, thus, subsequent actions, without anyone consciously being aware of this stimulus – results can follow the emotional mood of the group rather than just rational analysis.

Add to this the fact that “every emotional experience felt by a group, whether it is intense or mild in nature, adds to and becomes part of the group’s particular emotional history.  This history then influences expectations for emotional expression in future group interactions as well as behaviours…leading to self-reinforcing spirals of negativity or positivity.”  It is clear, then that what is being transmitted, even though unconscious, has lasting impacts on group cohesion, decision making and outcomes.

So, what can a leader do to influence one’s subordinates in the manner desired, given the subconscious nature of emotional contagion?   First of all, “where pressures for social comparison are high, certain individuals may have a disproportionate influence on the group, whether they intend to or not.” Secondly, a person who is proficient in transmitting emotions and who “occupies an important, visible, or central position in a group” can be a positive or negative influence on the level to which the group will converge emotionally. 

Hence, a formal military leader who has a developed ability to transmit appropriate emotions has an advantage off the top, given our strict hierarchical structure and the importance and centrality of the leader’s position in it.  Moreover, the cohesion of a unit makes a difference – the more cohesive the grouping, the greater the effect of the leader’s mood. 

Finally and most importantly, one can consciously and intentionally impact the mood of a group, whether the recipients are aware of this objective or not:

[L]aboratory studies… demonstrate that having subjects pose their faces in a manner that matches the normal expression of particular emotions (e.g. putting a pencil between teeth which leads to a smiling position related to happiness) influences the degree to which the subjects experience those same emotions.  This occurs even though subjects believe that they are engaging in a motor-coordination experiment and thus are unaware of the relationship between their posed features and the emotional expression… [Furthermore,] contagion occurred in both a laboratory study with mood induced by a trained confederate and…[one] in which contagion occurred naturally, with no confederate…with contagion of positive emotions leading to improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceptions of task performance.

How can you apply this in a practical manner as a leader?  The first step is to be aware of your internal emotional situation on a day-to-day basis.  Check in on yourself a few times a day to chart your moods and watch for patterns.  Now look around you and see how those emotions correlate to those in the immediate vicinity and who you think is transmitting and who is receiving. 

What if you then play with it in a low impact environment, for example, smiling when the mood is negative or low.  You will begin to understand how your emotions as a leader impact your team and how they can simply be another tool in your leadership toolbox.

Returning to the CO who, over time, noticed that his/her mood at work affected the unit. It has been proven that his/her emotional presence was having a distinct effect on subordinates where, biologically, signals were being silently transmitted, hormones and heart rate altered, and even immune functioning potentially impacted.  As many of us intuitively understand, it is not only one’s technical skills that are important to leadership but also one’s ability to control and transmit the right emotion at the right moment. 

This needs to be guided by an understanding of what is happening unconsciously to our hormones through our brains’ signals.  By building the bonds within a unit and employing positive emotional intelligence, being aware of our moods and their impact on others, and modelling positive emotions, a leader can influence subordinates without even saying a word.  The real answer lies within our biology and becoming aware of this fact can make us better, more effective warriors.

About the author: Lisa Elliott has 30+ years in the Canadian Army, starting as a private, digging trenches, and now in the officer ranks, fighting paperwork.  She is passionate about figuring out how our brains detract from or contribute to our success and how to use this knowledge as a leadership tool. This is the 2nd and final article in the series. You can find the first article here.