How to Sneeze: 10 Keys to Positive Emotional Contagion

I know it’s a disgusting image, but it’s an apt metaphor for effective leadership.


If you’ve ever been sneezed on with the full force of spittle in your face, you may not be able to keep reading this post. But please–trust me–the point is powerful.

This sudden expulsion of air, traveling at a rate of 35 miles per hour, splatters people with enough mucus to infect an entire city. Leadership interactions have the same viral effect on people, giving rise to the term emotional contagion.

The idea of emotional contagion is based on the propensity of human beings to be affected by their external environment, as an airborne virus infects us with the cold or flu. Unlike a virus, however, as leaders we have a choice about what kind of environment we create, transferring positive or negative emotions when we sneeze (Oops, sorry, I mean lead). That choice, then, brings out the best in others, or the worst.

“Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us,” Daniel Goleman writes in his best-selling book Primal Leadership. “When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through the emotions.”

So here’s how to sneeze on your people and bring out the best in in them, ten keys to positive emotional contagion. Do them well and do them repeatedly.

  1. Make eye contact.
  2. Smile. Smile. Smile.
  3. Say, “Please.”
  4. Say, “Thank you.”
  5. Remember and use people’s first name.
  6. Ask curious questions.
  7. Listen intently without being distracted.
  8. Compliment freely and praise publicly.
  9. Shake hands and give high-five’s. Hug when appropriate.
  10. Laugh. A lot.

“Understanding the powerful role of emotions in the workplace sets the best leaders apart from the rest,” Daniel Goleman continues. “Not just in tangibles such as better business results and the retention of talent, but also the all-important intangibles, such as higher morale, motivation, and commitment.”

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