Who sends the emotions in a group?

We are constantly impacting the brain states in other people. In my EI model, “Managing relationships” means, at this level, that we’re responsible for how we shape the feelings of those we interact with – for better or for worse. In this sense, relationship skills have to do with managing brain states in other people. This raises a question. Who sends the emotions that pass between people, and who receives them?

One answer, for groups of peers, is that the sender tends to be the most emotionally expressive person in the group. But in groups where there are power differences – in the classroom, at work, in organizations generally – it is the most powerful person who is the emotional sender, setting the emotional state for the rest of the group. In any human group, people pay most attention to – and put most importance on – what the most powerful person in that group says or does.

There are many studies that show, for example, that if the leader of a team is in a positive mood, that spreads an upbeat mood to the others and that collective positivity enhances the group’s performance. If the leader projects a negative mood, that spreads in the same way, and the group’s performance suffers. This has been found for groups making business decisions, seeking creative solutions – even erecting a tent together. Such emotional contagion happens whenever people interact, whether in a pair, a group, or an organization.

It’s most obvious at a sporting event or theatrical performance, where the entire crowd goes through the identical emotion at the same time. This contagion can happen because of our social brain, through circuitry like the mirror neuron system. Person-to-person emotional contagion operates automatically, instantly, unconsciously and out of our intentional control.

Daniel Goleman
Extract from ‘Leadership: the Power of Emotional Intelligence’
Chapter 7, The Social Brain,  Adapted from The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights

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