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October 1, 2020

Moody Leaders – and How Not to Be One

Bruna Martinuzzi

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©©Getty Images/struvictory

The real test of leadership is not when everything is going well. It's how a leader behaves in the crucible of crisis, when emotions run high.

During these times of disruption and upheaval, employees look to leaders for inspiration and guidance. More than ever, people need their leaders to show inner clarity, conviction, and deliberate calm. But what happens when a leader is stressed out, has low energy, is depressed, or is feeling anxious in isolation?

Leaders are as prone to stress as anyone else, perhaps even more so. But leaders cannot allow themselves to be mood driven. A lot of people rely on them to light the way.

Why Are Moods Important at Work?

A boss's mood is crucial at any time, and perhaps even more so during times of crisis.

Sigal Barsade, a management professor at Wharton, described how emotions in the workplace influence job performance, decision making and teamwork.

Through what she called "emotional contagion," negativity can transmit from one person to another, like a virus. And a leader's mood, because of their position and power, is the most contagious of all.

A leader's miserable mood can sap the energy out of a room, even a virtual one. It can unnerve people, cause unnecessary anxiety, and affect productivity. Positive emotional contagion, on the other hand, can result in improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and better performance.

Fortunately, positive emotional contagion is just as strong as the negative variety – a point Barsade discussed in her 2020 Harvard Business Review article, "The Contagion We Can Control." The research, and all too many people's bitter experience agree: a leader's mood directly affects team morale.

What Can You Do About Your Moods?

Leading at any level is tough emotionally. So, consider these seven tips on how to manage your moods. They can help you to remain steady in a difficult environment that breeds emotional disruption.

1. Increase Your Self-Awareness.

Self-awareness is the stepping-stone to self-management. Before a virtual meeting, for example, take a moment to consider your state of mind:

    • Are you angry?
    • Do you feel dispirited?
    • Are events causing you to feel discouraged?
    • Do you feel overwhelmed?

Ask yourself if this mood is useful to you and your co-workers. If the answer is no, make every effort to change your behavior – at least for the duration of the event. It takes discipline to do this!

2. Put Your Best Face Forward.

People are generally adept at picking up on the boss's mood. University of Glasgow research revealed that the brain takes just a fifth of a second to gather most of the information it needs from a facial expression to determine a person's emotional state. So, you may not think that your emotions are showing, but it's quite likely they are!

During stressful times, we may not be able to regulate our emotions fully. But we can control our facial muscles and so signal calmness and confidence. For example, just before you enter a meeting or a virtual meeting room, make a conscious effort to relax your jaw. Keep your chin up and add a smile. If you're not the smiling type, a half-smile will do.

Research by University of Washington psychology professor Marsha Linehan showed that keeping a half-smile improves our own overall mood and engenders a positive attitude. This chimes with the "Facial Feedback Hypothesis," which states that our facial expressions directly affect our emotional experience. Try it sometime!

3. Establish a Recovery Routine.

Zoom fatigue is real. Frequent and lengthy interactions using video conferencing can sap your energy and worsen your mood. Take inspiration from athletes who know that going at 100 percent capacity without rest or recovery will negatively affect their performance.

Plan some transition periods between video meetings so that you can refresh. Schedule small breaks for yourself during the day to walk away from your desk, stretch, and relax. These mini buffer zones can aid you in refocusing.

4. Review Your Messages Before Sending Them.

As we shift from in-person interactions, many people may find themselves leading by email and IM. But before you hit "send," take a moment to read your note. Ensure that you've got your facts right and set the right emotional tone.

For example, say a team member sends you a set of proposals for a project. Avoid responding with, "Let's discuss this at our next meeting." Such a brief reply might leave the recipient wondering if everything is OK. You can eliminate this unnecessary anxiety with a simple, "Good recommendations, Leslie. Let's explore these at our next meeting."

5. Beware of Grumpy Silences.

During times of elevated stress, it's easy to retreat and communicate less while you're working things out. The online equivalent of a grumpy silence in the office is when the lack of emails, video calls and meetings is noticeable.

Silence breeds uncertainty and anxiety – and can cause people to think of worst-case scenarios. In contrast, your digital presence is reassuring for employees. Even if there are no formal virtual meetings set up, check in with your people frequently, even daily. Be aware of micromanaging, though. Share updates. Keep your digital door open and create opportunities for dialogue, ensuring that you make time to hear people's concerns.

6. Be Predictable.

I once worked for a general manager who was prone to unpredictable moods. One day he would come into the office upbeat, attentive and friendly. The next day: furrowed brow, thinned lips, and a terse, dismissive manner. This emotional swing left everyone in an unnerved state, not knowing which way the proverbial wind was blowing.

You can help to maintain predictability for people during these times of change by regulating your emotions. Then you won't leave people at the mercy of your moods. People crave predictability because it promotes a feeling of security and safety.

7. Strengthen Your Empathy Muscle.

Empathy is emerging as a top skill for leaders in our challenging times. It's not uncommon to see CEOs referred to as "Chief Empathy Officers." If you struggle to manage your moods as a leader, put your empathy cap on. Consider the emotional impact that your moods may have on employees' fragile morale during this time. What about the impact on the well-being of the employees' families?

Moods and Power

All in all, keep in mind that, as the boss, you have considerable "soft" power. You can make an employee's day enjoyable or miserable.

Ask yourself these questions:

    • As a leader, what can I do to minimize the stress I may cause to others?
    • Am I a good role model for managing one's mood, so that it doesn't infect everyone else?
    • How can I set a positive tone at the top to help my people focus on their work and enhance their performance?
    • How can I make a positive difference in people's lives now when they need it most?

At the same time, don't be afraid to be candid and show some vulnerability. Vulnerability shows your authenticity. It creates a common bond with others in a crisis, and strengthens your connection to your employees.

A Case Study in Moods

A few years ago, I coached two people in the same firm. Let's call them Abdul and Chrissie. Abdul was an employee in the marketing department, Chrissie in the operations department. When we discussed the company culture, I was getting two different snapshots, depending on who I was talking to.

Abdul had no issues with the culture and described it in highly positive terms. Chrissie displayed deep-seated unhappiness with "the way things are around here." In exploring further, the main difference for this dichotomy turned out to be the two heads of department, not the company.

Mark, in charge of operations, was described as cold, cynical, easily irritated, and frequently moody. One thing Chrissie said stood out: "When Mark is away on vacation, it's like a weight has been lifted. It's a celebration in our department. Everyone is noticeably happier. Work flows smoothly, and we all get along better."

No one dared complain about Mark's leadership style because he was a strong performer and had been with the company for many years.

But here's the thing: if you're a senior leader, no matter how busy you are, keep your eye on the culture of your entire organization. Don't let the culture go unmanaged. Don't allow moody leaders to have a negative influence on pockets of your company culture. It's your responsibility to shine a light in dark places.

Long after the COVID crisis is over, skillful and caring leaders will be remembered for the way they lifted their employees' spirits in harsh times.

You can hear more from Bruna Martinuzzi in her article, A Leader's Mood. And find out what Mind Tools editor Lucy Bishop experienced, in her blog, Moodswings and Monotony in Lockdown.

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