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Leaders Mirror Emotion

 A number of years ago I talked with a group of executives about how the emotions of the top leaders in an organization affect the whole emotional tone of the organization. While this finding reported in the Harvard Business Review intuitively made sense to me I didn’t understand at the time what the mechanism was for the rapid emotional transmission.

I then had a client come to me and tell me he was having a hard time maintaining his positive emotional tone since the emotional tone of the leader he reported to had become more irritable. This client had been working with me on being more positive and more in tune with the emotional needs of the people that reported to him. He was seeing his people become more positive, productive and effective in their own leadership as he became a more emotionally intelligent leader. His fear was that he would again become more authoritarian and harsh in his leadership if he let himself become influenced by the negative emotions of his boss.

When I asked my client what happens to him when he is around his irritable boss he said that he automatically began to “mirror him.” When he used these words something in me clicked regarding some new research in neuroscience.

A significant number of experiments using functional MRI, electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetonecephalography (MEG) have shown that certain brain regions of the insula, anterior cingulate cortex and inferior frontal cortex are activated when people experience an emotion (disgust, happiness, pain, etc.) and when they see another person experiencing an emotion. These portions of the brain that experience the same emotions that others experience have been called “mirror neurons.”

Our brains are wired to mirror the emotions that other people are experiencing. When we think about it, this science seems obvious. One of the reasons we watch movies is because we want to feel the  actors’ emotions as they are captured by digital media. When our child is injured a streak of pain pierces through us as if it was happening to us. Science now understands the precise neural mechanisms that allow us to feel what others feel.

We of course do not always feel what others feel, which is a result of our shutting down the neural pathways which allow us to experience the signals generated by our mirror neurons. This creates problems with emotional intelligence when others do not feel that we are being empathic regarding their feelings.

It only makes sense that in pyramid shaped organizations the emotions of the top leaders will quickly have a cascade effect throughout the entire system.

So what is the solution to prevent negative emotion from flooding an entire organization?

If you are the number one person, remember that the emotions you carry will set the emotional tone for your organization. If you are reporting to someone who has a lot of negative emotion, remember that mirror neurons are bidirectional.

If you stay conscious of your need to stay in positive emotion you will activate the positive emotions of everyone below and above you. This will require that you let go of and not manifest the negative feelings you are picking up on while choosing to express positive emotions.

Let us know if we can help with the health and success of your organization.


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