Leaders bring the weather - how your mood affects those around you at work
When in his twenties, Steve Jobs's leadership style was (in a word):
"You should hate each other...," he once barked to a product team.
In terms of leadership traits, there was “Good Steve,” and “Bad Steve,” according to his biographer Walter Isaacson.
When he walked into a room, there was always a chance of a terrifying Steve storm.
And, the way a leader walks into the room can change team behaviour.
Is your arrival at work having the same effect?
When a leader walks into the workplace, research proves one of two things will happen.
- Either, the mood and performance of the team and individuals will be boosted.
- Or, the mood and performance of the team and individuals will be lowered.
What is the team leader doing that’s affects team culture so powerfully?
The leader is "bringing the weather."
“Leaders bring the weather…that is when a great leader walks in to the room, everyone is on notice, and everyone notices – the energy is palpable,“ Bob Anderson tells us in his co-authored book Scaling Leadership.
The CEO or other leader arrives and everyone in the workplace micro-adjusts their behaviour.
That's right. Within moments of the leader entering the room or work site, each team member is either relaxing, and contributing, or they are alert to danger – and remain cautious, reserved, and careful.
It happens in just seconds. And, most leaders have absolutely no idea at all that it does.
What is this weather that the leader brings?
When you’re a leader, your mood is the weather.
That’s right. You don’t have to say a single word. You might just walk to your desk.
But, you are sending out powerful signals to your team by doing so.
- Does the boss appear to be in a good mood? (It’s safe)
- Is she slumped? (There’s danger)
- Did he go straight into his office and shut the door? (There’s danger)
- Did she avoid my eye contact? (There’s danger)
- Was she heard laughing outside the door? (It’s safe)
What happens to a team when a leader is in a good or bad mood?
Research shows the leader’s mood leads to mood contagion, i.e. the leader’s mood is contagious.
That’s right. Incredibly, just like a flu (or, ahem, other virus), the mood of the boss will spread to the team.
In research published in The Journal of Applied Psychology, experts found that that when leaders were in a positive mood:
- individual group members were more positive;
- whole groups were more positive.
(For the effect of more leadership behaviours see What Makes a Good leader in 2020 - The Definitive Guide.)
As well, German research shows that the mood of leaders is transferred to team members. Teams acquire their leaders’ mood, and it influences their performance.
Why does the leader’s mood affect the rest of the team?
It's all to do with cortisol, how humans differ from gazelles, and something Simon Sinek calls the Circle of Safety.
Cortisol surges through our bodies when we sense a threat, and helps us prepare to fight, run or hide.
In his bestseller, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek explains cortisol is also behind the feelings of anxiety, discomfort or stress we have at work.
Whether the danger is real or imagined, the stress we feel is real. As social animals, we feel stress when we feel unsupported.
“Whereas a gazelle reacts to the cortisol in their bodies, we as humans want to know the cause of our stress, to understand or make sense of our feelings,” writes Sinek.
Cortisol puts us on high alert, and searching for reasons for that alert state.
Sinek says, in trying to explain our unease, we cycle through any number of things we did, or did not do, to help us understand why we feel anxious. He says the paranoia that cortisol creates is just doing its job.
It is trying to get us to find the threat and prepare for it.
The problem is, trying to find a threat is distracting.
"The stress [your team members] feel will distract them from getting anything else done until they feel that the threat has passed," says Sinek.
Conversely, a positive mood makes the team feel safe, and they will be more productive.
Team leaders need to create a Circle of Safety.
- By creating a sense of belonging, Sinek says a Circle of Safety is formed around the people in the organisation.
- This reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organisation from the constant dangers outside, and seize the big opportunities.
And, worryingly, in the absence of data, people make up stories.
Hundreds of times a day at work we make up stories to protect ourselves.
Vulnerability and shame expert Brené Brown says that humans are wired to make up stories when data is missing.
- The boss is in a bad mood = I’ve done something wrong. I’m losing my job.
- The boss looks distracted = The company is failing.
In Dare to Lead, Dr Brown says the brain is not a big fan of ambiguous stories that leave unanswered questions and a big tangle of possibilities.
In protection mode, it prefers binaries: Good guy or bad guy? Dangerous or safe? Ally or enemy?
It makes up a story.
And, our brain can get hooked on thoughts and self-created stories - treating them as facts, says Harvard Medical School professor Susan David, author of Emotional Agility.
Both Dr David and Dr Brown say keeping staff in the loop helps.
“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind,” Brené Brown says, meaning communication is key to reducing stress in the workplace. More on this in BRENÉ BROWN: 4 REASONS BEING UNCLEAR IS UNKIND.
What kind of weather do you bring? Are you aware of it?
The tone, mood, presence, focus and behaviour of the leader is the weather.
According to Robert Anderson, co-author of Scaling Leadership, workers can feel it, see it, experience it, and describe how it impacts those around them.
“They know if this weather either supports what they are trying to create, or destroys it.”
Anderson says the weather is the leader’s profile in action.
- He says each of us has a leadership profile.The way we show up to our people,
- How we tend to respond to certain situations or crises,
- What is and is not permissible to discuss, and much more.
"Since those who work directly for the leader experience the weather firsthand, they are often more aware and capable of describing it than the leader.”
Leaders change culture by their traits and behaviours.
The significance of verbal and non-verbal communication traits cannot be underestimated, Steven Scott, author of The 15 Disciplines – The essential checklist for productive leaders, said in an interview with The Growth Faculty.
“If you look like you are hiding something, then they will believe you are hiding something,” he says.
What helps is simple. Just share what's going on.
- Information gives immediate comfort and connection to people.
- Without it, people will make up their own conclusions - which will be counterproductive to your mission and culture.
- Control the messaging by informing relentlessly.
You create your culture every day. So be positive.
Former CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo was famous for his warm sense of humour.
In 10 lessons from the best Silicon Valley bosses, Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, says 90% of staff felt positively about him.
“Dick often had everyone at Twitter’s company all-hands meetings doubled over with laughter,” she says.
You are always creating your culture, says Jon Gordon, author of The Power of a Positive Team.
"You create it every day by what you think, say and do. You are broadcasting negative energy or positive energy, apathy or passion, indifference or purpose."
He says team members daily face a world filled with cynicism, negativity and fear.
Your job, as leader, is to inspire them with faith in a positive future.
- It means every day you decide to be a fountain of energy, instead of an energy drain.
- Check your mood, before it affects your team.
- Notice when stress starts to crack your amour.
Or, as famous New York blogger Seth Godin says, go for a walk - especially when you don't feel like it.
Maybe you're being a cranky leader simply because you're not well....
64% of senior business leaders have suffered from mental health conditions including anxiety, stress and depression.
Kevin Lawrence, author of Your Oxygen Mask First, recommends leaders arm themselves with the mental health continuum model, and seek help if in the orange or red zones.
Mental health continuum:
Healthy (Green zone)
Normal mood, sleep, social activity, energy level, performance, physical wellness.
Reacting (Yellow zone)
Nervousness, sadness, trouble sleeping, tired, low energy, tension, decreased social activity, procrastination, muscle tension, headaches.
Injured (Orange zone)
Anxiety, anger, pervasive sadness, hopelessness, restless sleep, fatigue, aches and pains, decreased performance, social avoidance or withdrawl.
Ill (Red zone)
Excessive anxiety, easily enraged, depressed mood, unable to fall or stay asleep, exhaustion, physical illness, unable to perform duties, absenteeism, isolation, avoiding social events.
If you in the red or orange zone, make an appointment with your family doctor or a mental health expert, to get back on track.
Can a positive team lift the leader’s performance?
It appears that what’s good for the gaggle of geese is also good for the gander.
In research published by the University of Queensland Business School and Malaysia’s HELP University, leaders of team members in a positive mood were judged to have performed better and faster than leaders whose team was negative.
You have a split-second decision when you enter your workplace.
You can decide to walk in with your head up and a smile on your face, or you can sneak in, mumble a greeting, and sit at your desk with headphones on.
One decision, sustained during the day, will lift performance and lead to better results.
And the other, well, you’d have been better off staying at home and pretending you’ve got the flu.
A case study in Made to Thrive showed a simple effort to improve accountability at a garbage collection company called City Bin.
To emphasise the behaviours and the values expected by City Bin, the company set out a list of “cool” and “not cool” behaviors.
What’s interesting about that particular example is that sometimes CEOs should not be asking what can we do about our poor performers, but why are they not performing in the first place?
Brad Giles says every single person who works for you will have a beginning and a middle and an end, and it's what you do as the leader in the middle that makes the difference.
“A lot of people in my experience and observation will kind of get fed up with an employee and they'll say, look, this person's just got to go. I've had enough. But we've got hundreds and hundreds of opportunities before then that we can use to try and course correct that person,” he says.
Brad recommends getting the person to try to course correct wherever possible in a really respectful manner.
Brad says there are 4 “prides” in employee engagement:
- People must be proud of their product.
- They must be proud of their manager,
- They must be proud of their company.
- They must be proud of their team.
Ideally, Brad says, the 4 prides are activated in the person's first week of engagement.
“So, we may have a normal onboarding, which is welcome to the company, there's the bathrooms, there's this is how your computer works. But in addition to that, within the context of the size of the business, what we want to try to do is to activate the pride within the employee by getting the leader to work in an ambassadorial capacity.”
Effectiveness of the CEO
Brad says every leader's challenge is how to be effective and if you want to be effective, you need to stop doing other people's jobs.
The problem lies when the leader reverts back to sales manager or operations manager (ie. the job they were doing before) , or, he says, "they're doing things that they're interested in, because there's no definition specifically around what they have to do as a leader.”
In actual fact, they're not helping, they’re causing more damage than they know for two reasons:
- When they step in to help someone else, they're not giving that person a sandbox in which they can thrive, in which that sales manager or whoever it is can have full autonomy for the job.
- They're not doing their own job as a leader because there's only one person in the company who can do some of these key things.
Brad’s GREAT EIGHT
(8 getting to know you questions we ask all our authors)
What’s a book you would recommend: Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. It speaks to ancient Greek philosophy and ancient Greek stoicism, which may put some people off immediately. But it's written within the last couple of years and it's very practical and about today.
How did you get your first ever job? I saw an advert in the school I was in year 10 and it was at the local Pizza Hut.
What's the best decision you've ever made to improve your career over the years? I studied entrepreneurialism at MIT with the Entrepreneurs Organization and that was one of the best. I've always been a great learner, reading a lot of books and that really put learning onto a global stage. So, studying abroad I would say.
What’s something that frustrates you about business leadership? Coachability. So, I'm a leadership team coach. When people think they already know everything, it's very hard to push them outside of their leadership comfort zone to take them to a better place.
How do you cope with stressful events? I just grind it out. I just, you know, put my head down, butt up and get stuck in and work through it.
What's been your lowest moment and how did you recover from it? One that comes to mind is building my coaching practice and trying to differentiate myself from the crowd.
What do you think is the next trend in leadership? I think the next trend is this concept that I talk about in the book, which is the employee promise. We understand the concept of a brand promise…and that brand promise meets the customer's need. Well, if you can imagine a Seesaw or a Teeter totter at the other end of that, we would have an employee promise that meets the employees need and therefore attracts the best employees in the market.
What’s a fun fact that's not widely known about you? I'm particularly interested in barbecue, in old slow cooked barbecue. So for example, meats that would take 16 hours to cook and pizzas in an old smoky barbecue.
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The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader's Mood on the Mood of Group Members, Group Affective Tone, and Group Processes
Sy, Thomas & Côté, Stéphane & Saavedra, Richard. (2005).
Eugene (Yu Jin)Tee, Neal M.Ashkanasy, and NeilPaulsen (2011, revised 2013) The influence of follower mood on leader mood and task performance: An affective, follower-centric perspective of leadership. Science Direct.
Catching Leaders’ Mood: Contagion Effects in Teams by Judith Volmer, University of Erlangen, Bismarckstr. 6. Erlangen 91054, Germany: 29 August 2012
"Brutally critical" - how Jonathan Ive, the lead designer at Apple once described him to Wired magazine.
Scaling Leadership co-authored by Robert J Anderson, William A. Adams
Radical Candor by Kim Scott
Your Oxygen Mask First by Kevin Lawrence
Image credits: https://business.financialpost.com/business-insider/17-extraordinary-stories-of-ordinary-people-who-randomly-meet-steve-jobs (Getty Images and Simon and Schuster)