the shape of leadership

Emotional Contagion

How your emotions affect others — and what you can do about it

Kayla Pierce on May 25, 2022

You may not know it, but you’re contagious.

As a leader, the emotions you project can spread to others and affect their work. Social scientists refer to this as “emotional contagion.” It has profound implications for churches.

Here are six ways to keep contagious emotions from damaging your ministry:


1. Invest in Your Health

Prioritizing your emotional health isn’t a personal luxury; it’s a spiritual and professional necessity.

A study by Thomas Sy and colleagues published in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed leaders are more contagious than followers.

That means pastors and church leaders set the tone for their ministry teams and congregations.

In my doctoral dissertation, I explored how social status impacts patterns of emotional contagion in groups. I found that members of a group who are respected and honored by others — as most church leaders are within their churches — are more contagious than those who are not.

Being emotionally contagious is a big responsibility, so take time often to reflect on how you feel. Are you energized or depleted? Peaceful or anxious?

Whether you realize it or not, your emotions are probably spreading to others. Investing in your emotional health not only benefits you, but it also helps you serve your church well by cultivating emotional health in others.


2. Check Your Emotions

People convey emotions verbally, physically and virtually, so you are probably more emotionally expressive than you know.

With more than 40 individual muscles, the human face generates myriad expressions others interpret as sad, mad, bored, frustrated, etc.

Facial expressions are just one way we communicate and understand emotions. We also use a range of postures, gestures, and voice inflections that betray what we’re feeling — often spontaneously, rapidly and unconsciously.

Emotions come across in digital communication as well. When you text or post online, readers infer how you feel by your word selection and punctuation. And there is growing evidence these emotions are likewise contagious.

Emojis may seem juvenile, but they are an increasingly important source of emotional information in today’s world. A single emoji can dramatically change the way someone reads a text message. A text that says, “Julie is here early” alongside a smiling emoji has a different meaning than the same message with an angry emoji.

We are in a constant state of expressing emotion, albeit in varying degrees of intensity and intentionality.

It’s a good idea to pay attention to the emotional signals we send. However, continually self-regulating is not only taxing but practically impossible — especially since much of what we communicate about our emotions is unconscious.

Ensuring your heart and mind are in alignment with God’s Word is a more effective strategy. If you are spiritually and emotionally healthy, you won’t have to worry about your emotions negatively affecting your team.


3. Offer Encouragement

Your emotions affect not only how people on your ministry teams feel but also how they work.

A study by Sigal Barsade published in Administrative Science Quarterly demonstrated positive emotion reduces conflict and increases group cooperation and performance.

Churches rely on groups to work together. Cooperation ultimately impacts a church’s ability to serve its community and fulfill the Great Commission.

Anger is not
only potentially
destructive, but it
is also contagious.

To lead well, we need productive volunteer teams and staff teams. Because emotional health is central to productivity, we cannot take it lightly.

The good news is leaders can powerfully influence the emotional well-being of team members. We can counter negative emotions by inspiring positive ones.

If one of your ministry teams has experienced a setback or disappointment, don’t underestimate the power of encouragement.


4. Be Authentic

It would be a mistake to conflate emotional health with happiness. People are complex and multifaceted, and nowhere is that more evident than in the roller coaster of emotions we experience.

Your ministry has likely included moments of delight and deep satisfaction, as well as times of frustration, disappointment, and even grief.

Leaders often feel pressure to put on a brave face, but you don’t have to be a constant stream of enthusiasm. Attempting to project happiness at all times is unrealistic and inauthentic.

Congregants need to know they are not alone in experiencing sorrow and other negative emotions. Hearing how church leaders work through those feelings can be helpful. Even Jesus wept in front of His disciples (John 11:35).

God created you to experience — and authentically express — a range of emotions. However, if you are bitter, jealous, or resentful, these emotions can take root in your church. Authenticity in leadership can be beneficial, but only when it comes from a place of spiritual maturity and health.


5. Manage Anger

Anger is not only potentially destructive, but it is also contagious. Therefore, it’s important for leaders to keep their tempers in check.

In my dissertation research, I hypothesized happiness would be more contagious than anger. As it turned out, I was wrong. I discovered anger spreads as easily as happiness.

The Bible has a lot to say about anger. James 1:19–20 says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

However, Scripture does include instances of righteous anger. For example, Nehemiah became “very angry” when he heard about the oppression of God’s people (Nehemiah 5:6). The prophet’s anger prompted him to advocate on behalf of others.

Anger can motivate people toward positive action. But as leaders, we must discern whether our anger is of righteous quality. Otherwise, it can spread and fester.


6. Be Careful What You Catch

Emotional contagion can work both ways. If we aren’t careful, the emotions of those around us can spread to our hearts.

Discipleship often involves helping people navigate life’s most difficult challenges. While walking with others through interpersonal conflict, life transitions, and tragedies, we can also shoulder their emotions.

As you invest time and energy in people, you may find yourself on the receiving end of emotional contagion. When a person becomes angry and stirs conflict, it is easy to fire back with anger. As you minister to family members during a time of bereavement, you can unintentionally catch their grief.

When emotions are intense and you begin feeling overwhelmed, turn to God in prayer. Philippians 4:6–7 says, “In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

King David — whose emotional expressions were diverse and often on display — knew he needed God’s help to keep his inner life in check. Psalm 26, which is attributed to David, says, “Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind” (verse 2).

As leaders, we have a responsibility to shepherd those around us well. To do this, we need to take stock of our own emotions, stay malleable to the work of the Holy Spirit, and spread emotions that promote healthy and productive churches.


This article appears in the Spring 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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