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  • Writer's pictureElliot Smith

The Power of Emotional Contagion From Leadership to Group Dynamics in Sport and Business

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

Performance and Management Psychology

What Is Emotional Contagion?

Emotional contagion (pronounced ‘kuhn-tei-jn’) is the phenomenon that people tend to display emotions that are similar to those of others around them (1), similar to how you might catch a common cold, that kind of contagious. A very simple example of emotional contagion is yawning, i.e. tiredness, for one reason or another, when one person yawns it is often followed by a second person yawning, who is normally within close proximity to the first yawn. Emotional contagion typically happens subconsciously, that is, without knowing (2). However, unlike the contagion of a cold or virus, the contagion of emotions can have a positive influence on a person, depending on whether the emotions are positive or negative. There are two types of emotional contagion then, positive and negative. Positive emotional contagion happens when an individual displays positive emotions (e.g. optimism, hope, and courage), and these emotions are copied by others nearby. The same process occurs with negative emotional contagion, but the emotions demonstrated are generally negative (e.g. anger, frustration, and fear). However, labelling emotions as positive or negative can be problematic. For instance, emotions that are typically thought to be negative, such as anxiety, can improve performance by enhancing concentration and alertness. Therefore, it is perhaps how the emotion is interpreted that distinguishes whether the emotional contagion is positive or negative.

Why is Emotional Contagion Important?

Let’s consider a group to consist of three or more individuals who work together to achieve a shared goal (3). In sport and business, positive emotional contagion is thought to improve group performance by increasing group cooperation and developing collective efficacy (4). Collective efficacy (pronounced ‘eh-fuh-kuh-see’) is a group’s shared belief that its able to work together in order to complete a task successfully (5). On the other hand, negative emotional contagion is thought to impair group performance by increasing conflict and reducing collective efficacy.

To be successful in business, it’s said that a person’s emotional quotient (pronounced ‘kwow-shnt’) is more important than their intelligence quotient. Emotional quotient refers to one’s ability to manage their emotions in order to achieve an optimal state of mind, communicate and emphasize with others, and overcome barriers and challenges (6). In the workplace environment, the productivity of a group might be influenced by whether peoples’ emotional contagion is positive or negative.

Like second-hand smoke, the leakage of emotions can make a bystander an innocent casualty of someone else’s toxic state” – Daniel Goleman (6).

Factors That Influence Emotional Contagion

The valence and arousal of an emotion is thought to influence emotional contagion (7). The valence simply means how pleasant or unpleasant an emotion feels. The arousal of an emotion refers to how stimulating it is (e.g. increased heart rate). For instance, being nervous and being excited have similar levels of arousal, but they are different in that being excited feels more pleasant than being nervous. And whilst being excited and being relaxed are both pleasant emotions, being relaxed is less arousing than being excited. Emotions with higher arousal are thought to be more contagious because they are more noticeable by others (4), and the valence of an emotion will likely determine whether the emotional contagion is positive or negative.

Leadership and Emotional Contagion

We can define a leader as someone who influences a group to achieve their goal (8). Through emotional contagion leaders can influence the emotions and behaviours of an individual or group (9). In sport and business, an important role of the leader is to demonstrate positivity (e.g. confidence), to enhance the collective efficacy of a group. A leader who conveys negativity towards a group will likely impair its collective efficacy, which might lead to poor performance.

Think of a leader as though they are an emotional thermostat, in that they provide conscious (i.e. deliberate) and subconscious signals that influence the ‘temperature’ of a group (10). A group has a unique optimal temperature in which it will function most effectively. When the temperature of a group drops below the optimal level, e.g. members of a group feel discouraged or disheartened, the leader might display encouraging emotions such as hope, optimism, and enthusiasm to improve the collective mood of the group. Likewise, when the temperature of a group rises above the optimal level, e.g. members of a group are overly aroused and too excited, the leader might express calmness and composure, to adjust the arousal levels of a group closer to the optimal temperature. In which case, the changes in the collective mood of the group are facilitated by the leader, through emotional contagion.

Dark Leadership and Negative Emotional Contagion

In a high performance environment some leaders display dark leadership characteristics, and they have been described as dark leaders (11). Examples of dark leadership characteristics include controlling behaviour, not supporting group members, and favouritism. Dark leaders are also thought to have infectious personalities that individuals will copy, such as their egocentric behaviour and emotions. An egocentric (pronounced ‘ee-gow-sen-truhk’) individual is someone who prioritises their own ambitions without considering the thoughts and feelings of others (12). For individual achievement in sport and business, egocentrism *might* be advantageous on the road to success. However, emotional contagion of egocentric emotions between group members will likely reduce collective efficacy and ultimately impair group performance.

Informal Leaders

Whilst there is often a designated group leader (e.g. team captain), there are also informal leaders. Although informal leaders are not openly given the role of leader, they take on leadership roles within the group for different reasons (9). For instance, an informal leader might provide motivational support for group members leading up to a performance event, or help develop the social relations inside the group which indirectly benefits group performance. Informal leaders are important sources of emotional contagion, and openly identifying their responsibilities in the group emphasises their role in maintaining the ‘optimal temperature’.

Emotional Contagion Between Groups

When an individual celebrates success with members of their group (e.g. after scoring a penalty kick in football) it enhances the relationships within the group, rather than highlighting the achievement of one individual. Research shows that whilst celebrating success together as a group increases contagion of positive emotions between members of the group, it may also produce negative emotions among individuals in an opposing group (13). This means that individuals in a group should celebrate achievement together in order to exchange positive emotions, but also because it can produce negative emotional contagion towards opponents, which may provide some kind of competitive advantage.

How Can YOU Use Emotional Contagion

Emotional contagion typically occurs subconsciously, in order to deliberately influence the emotions of others you must be able to carefully manage and display your emotions (2). This is not an easy thing to do, emotions are sensitive, unstable, and usually occur without giving you any indication. Techniques such as self-talk, imagery, meditation and reframing can enable individuals to better regulate their emotions (14). To deliberately cause emotional contagion simply conveying a certain emotion might not be enough, you should also adjust your physical appearance, such as your posture, facial expressions, and demeanour. Also, verbal communication, i.e. the way you speak in terms of your tone and intensity, is likely to influence others. Emotional contagion in practice then is not straightforward, and relies on you being able to reflect on your emotions, body language, and speech. Below are some useful tips on how to develop positive emotional contagion in your own group:

+ Good posture - no slouching

+ Clear communication that is easy to understand

+ Positive feedback - avoid criticism

+ Encouraging and friendly facial expression

+ Optimistic attitude

+ Direct eye contact

+ Support group traditions and values

+ Celebrate success together


Leaders and group members can use emotional contagion as a means of enhancing collective efficacy, to improve group performance. The principle of emotional contagion is applicable to both sport and business settings, particularly when good performance relies on an optimal state of mind. Emotional contagion might be very important when a group is operating in a stressful environment, when members of a group are more vulnerable to negative emotions.

Final Remarks

Whilst emotional contagion is an important feature of a performance environment, it can also be applied to everyday people during the current pandemic. On a global and individual scale, the coronavirus pandemic continues to present numerous challenges. On a day-to-day basis people feel stressed and worried, and these negative emotions may get in the way of their experiences of happiness, and those of others around them. During these times of hardship, emotional contagion is somewhat relevant, because displaying kindness towards co-workers, teammates, friends, and family is invaluable. To some extent our emotions are thought to govern our behaviour, and potentially, the behaviour of others. So the ability to acknowledge our emotions as they come and go, and thoughtfully display positive emotions according to how we would like to feel, or how we would like others to feel, is an extraordinarily useful skill.


1. Primitive Emotional Contagion. Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. and Rapson, R. L. 1992, Review of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 14, pp. 151-177.

2. Moods and Emotions in Small Groups and Work Teams. Kelly, J. R. and Barsade, S. G. 2001, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes , Vol. 86, pp. 99-130.

3. Wilson, G. and Hanna, M. Groups in Context: Leadership and Participation in Small Groups. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1993.

4. The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influence on Group Behaviour. Barsade, S. 2002, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 47, pp. 644-675.

5. Self-Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioural Change. Bandura, A. 2, 1977, Psychological Review, Vol. 84, pp. 191-215.

6. Goleman, D. Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. s.l. : Bantam Books, 2006. p. 14.

7. The Circumplex Model of Affect: An Integrative Approach to Affective Neuroscience, Cognitive Development, and Psychopathology. Posner, J., Russell, J. A. and Peterson, B. S. 3, 2005, Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 17, pp. 715-734.

8. Northouse, P. G. Leadership. 5th. Thousands Oaks, CA. : Sage, 2010. p. 3.

9. The Impact of Athlete Leaders on Team Members' Team Outcome Identifcation: A Test of Mediation By Team Identification and Collective Efficacy. Fransen, K., Vanbeselaere, N. and De Cuyper, B. 4, 2014, Sport Psychologist, Vol. 28, pp. 347-360.

10. Warrell, M. Emotional Contagion Is Potent: Use It To Spread Possibility, Not Pessimism . Forbes. [Online] 6 May 2020.

11. Performance Leadership and Management in Elite Sport: A Black and White Issue or Different Shades of Grey? Arnold, R., Fletcher, D. and Hobson, J. 5, 2018, Journal of Sport Management, Vol. 32, pp. 452-463.

12. Egocentric. Dictionary. [Online] 2020.

13. Emotional Contagion in Soccer Penalty Shootouts: Celebration of Individual Success is Associated with Ultimate Team Success. Moll, T., Jordet, G. and Pepping, G. 9, 2010, Journal of Sports Sciences, Vol. 28, pp. 983-992.

14. Controlling Your Emotions in Sport. Jones, Marc V. 2003, The Sport Psychologist, Vol. 17, pp. 471-486.

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