Jones & Bartlett Learning Health Blog

    Infectious Leadership

    Posted by admin on Nov 23, 2009 10:13:17 AM

    Not too long ago I visited a local community hospital. The hallways were lined with photographs of award-winning employees. Beneath each photo was the story of why he or she received the award.  One was a nurse who stopped by a patient’s home after work just to see how the patient was doing. Another was an aide who detoured many miles out of his way home to drop off medications for another patient.  Yet another was an LPN who helped to comfort a terminally ill patient as she lay dying. It is well known that one of the best ways to motivate employees is to catch them doing the right thing--and recognizing and rewarding them. But this example is the only one that has ever moved me to tears. The CEO of this hospital is relentlessly optimistic and enthusiastic.  Employees have high satisfaction scores--and the patient satisfaction scores are correspondingly high.  Is there a relationship between the CEO’s mood and the employees’ satisfaction levels? You bet there is.

    The leadership literature has demonstrated that the most effective leaders are those who possess a certain constellation of personality traits. These traits include:

    “Self-confidence; self-awareness and self-objectivity; honesty, integrity and credibility; dominance; extroversion; assertiveness; emotional stability; high tolerance for frustration; warmth; and a sense of humor” (Dubrin, 1995, p.  31).

    Psychological researchers have known for decades that infants learn emotions through observation and mimicry of caregiver’s facial expressions. In addition, Laird and Bresler (1992) demonstrated in laboratory research that when subjects’ faces were arranged into frowns that the subjects reported feeling angry--even in the absence of any cues that would induce such emotions.  Muscle memory appeared to create the mood associated with the facial expressions.  Recently, neuroscientists have discovered that a cluster of premotor and parietal cells called “mirror neurons” or the “mirror neuron system” (MNS) is responsible for enabling humans to learn motor skills, language, communication and social behaviors (Iacoboni & Depretto, 2006;  Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Society for Neuroscience, 2008).

    According to Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson (1993), people who are emotionally in tune with others can read emotions within microseconds of observing facial expressions. The ability to read other people’s emotions has been measured through the Emotion Contagion (EC) scale. Doherty, Orimoto, Singelis, Hatfield and Hebb (1995) found that women and physicians scored higher on the EC scale and that there were significant correlations between self-report of “catching emotion” and “judges’ ratings of participants actual emotional reactions” (Doherty et al, 1995, p. 369).

    When Totterdell, Kellett, Teuchmann and Briner (1998) looked at the relationship between mood and work groups of community nurses, they discovered “significant associations between people’s moods and the moods of their teammates at work over time” (Totterdell et al, 1998, p. 1513). The term used by these researchers and others for why this happened was “emotional contagion.” In other words, the teammates caught each others’ moods.

    To summarize:

    • We are hard-wired to learn emotions through mimicry and mirroring.
    • Emotions are communicated in a flash--literally within microseconds.
    • Women and people in the helping professions are more sensitive to reading emotions.
    • Emotions are contagious and can spread within moments.

    Kanter (2004) found that optimistic leaders focus on specific tasks ahead rather than dwelling on past failures and negativity.  Although we are experiencing challenging times in health care, leaders canmoderate the impact of this volatile environment. With all the women and helping professionals in health care settings, the majority of employees are highly sensitive to other peoples' moods.  Enthusiasm, confidence and optimism are critical to leading others. Emotionally aware leaders can change an organization’s emotional environment and improve the quality of employees’ and patients’ lives by helping others to become “infected” with positive moods.

    Sharon B. Buchbinder, RN. PhD and Chair
    Department of Health Science
    Towson University
    Towson, MD

    Sharon Buchbinder is an Adjunct Professor of Nursing at Stevenson University in the Graduate and Professional School , and former chair of the Association of University Programs in Health Administration (AUPHA).  She is also the author of two books from Jones & Bartlett: Introduction to Health Care Management and Career Opportunities in Health Care Management.


    Here are some references if you are interested in this topic.

    Doherty, R.W., Orimoto, L., Singelis, T.M., Hatfield, E. & Hebb, J. (1995). Emotional contagion: gender and occupational differences. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 19, 355-371.

    Dubrin, A.J. (1995). Leadership: Research findings, practice and skills. Boston (MA): Houghton Mifflin Company.

    Hatfield, E. Cacioppo, J.L. & Rapson, R.L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 2, 96-99.

    Iacoboni, M. & Dapretto, M. (2006). The mirror neuron system and the consequences of its dysfunction.Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 7, 942-951.

    Kanter, R.M. (2004). Confidence: How winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end. New York (NY): Crown Books.

    Laird, J.D. & Bresler, C. (1993). The process of emotional feeling: A self-perception theory. In Review of Personality and Social Psychology: Vol 13. Emotion, M. Clark (Ed.) Newbury Park (CA): Sage.  As cited by Hatfield, E. Cacioppo, J.L. & Rapson, R.L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Sciences, 2, 96-99.

    Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 27, 169-192.

    Society for Neuroscience. (2008, November). Mirror neurons. Brain Briefings. Retrieved on November 22, 2009

    Totterdell, P., Kellett, S. Teuchman, K. & Briner. R.B. (1998). Evidence of mood linkage in work groups.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1504-1515.


    Topics: allied health, public health education, Sharon B. Buchbinder, Leadership, Laird and Bresler, mirror neuron system (MNS), Public health management, Sharon Buchbinder Blog, caregiver, Emotion Contagion (EC), emotions, hospital

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