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Teams are Inspired by Leaders

A leader with a positive attitude, who inspires, gives hope and motivates his team may turn a difficult task into a challenge, which the employees will see as a project worth spending time on, working for and giving all their energy to, regardless of the feasibility of the project - explains Dr. Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc, social psychologist, lecturer at SWPS Uniwesity.

When a baby begins to cry in a maternity ward, one may expect that a choir of squalling newborns will be heard soon after. The majority of sitcoms includes a resounding laughter track that is heard after each funny scene. It is an effective way to make television audiences giggle. When someone comes to work with a new hairdo, his or her colleagues visit a hair salon shortly. Enthusiasm for running spreads like a flu, although in this case the consequences are definitely much more positive.

Attitudes work in a similar way, including political attitudes. In general, people are inspired by others in an affective, motivational and cognitive way. The phenomenon of herd behavior is known not only in psychology. In macroeconomics, herd behavior can been observed on a stock market, as a sudden and unsubstantiated wave of buying or selling of shares in response to a temporary and often speculative trend. The term ‘herd behavior’ refers to the way herds of animals, such as sheep, behave in a large group. They follow the leader automatically, without a second thought, keeping close together.

Leader’s Emotions Become Team’s Emotions

Business environment, especially project teams, is an interesting place for observing the phenomenon of infectious attitudes. The spectrum of emotions, attitudes, and behaviors that can influence you in this type of an environment is very broad and, what is interesting, you are unaware that you are being influenced by others. Although, on a conscious level you wish to remain your own person, you do become a malleable material for shaping. There is also another side to this situation, one that gives you back some of your individuality: you also influence other people with your mood, passion, views and your ordinary daily behavior. What results from the process of this mutual influencing is change, although you may not always like it or admit it.

Let’s assume that you work in a team, which has been tasked with the organization of an important event, a technological conference, where the company would like to invite Elon Musk as the key note speaker. The probability that a famous and busy person like Elon Musk would accept the invitation to your event seems to be rather small. But objectively speaking, is this goal doomed to fail from this start? Probably not, taking into consideration the world is shrinking and, as the result, there are multiple opportunities for interpersonal and global communication.

So what impacts the success of this project and the level of motivation and engagement of people working on this task? There are many factors that influence the outcome, including the budget that you have at your disposal, the topic of the conference, the issues that will be discussed at the event and most of all the degree of innovation and the presence of other recognizable and influential guests. However, apart from the external factors that significantly impact the success of the project, there are also other, less visible and for sure less obvious forces at play, i.e. psychological factors. For example, psychological factors may include the mood in the team and, more broadly, in the whole company. The atmosphere, which stems from emotions generated in the process of planning the conference. These emotions may be positive, such as hope, excitement, enthusiasm and curiosity or negative, such as fear, anger, shame, and feelings of being threatened or anticipating failure.

Both types of emotions may occur simultaneously, because difficult tasks usually generate mixed feelings that carry contradictory values or shades. Which feelings will dominate? Emotions of people who dominate the team or behaviors of the key opinion leaders in the group will have the largest impact on the general mood.

Every interaction with another person is a type of transaction. Unconsciously, you absorb feelings, emotions, goals and attitudes of other people.

Positive People Motivate, Negative People Impede

A leader with a positive attitude, who inspires, gives hope and motivates his team may turn a difficult task into a challenge, which the employees will see as a project worth spending time on, working for and giving all their energy to, regardless of the feasibility of the project. The process of working towards the goal may be valuable by itself, because it is a learning opportunity, a chance to gain experience and it shows a direction of further development. A leader with a negative attitude will influence the team in the same or even a greater degree as a leader with a positive attitude. A low level of engagement in the task, a conviction that the project does not make sense, that it is impossible to do or that it exceeds the abilities of the team will most likely have an effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy. With this type of attitude at the helm, the team will consciously or unconsciously sabotage the project from the beginning to prove to the whole world that the task was doomed from the start.

Although the attitude of the leader carries a lot of weight, all team members have an impact on the overall mood of the group. Every member of the team and every person in the company emanate with emotions and if others do not oppose these influences consciously, the results will be visible on many levels, including: wellbeing of employees, their mood, emotions, convictions and finally their effectiveness in completing tasks.

The way the boss, manager, leader, teacher or parent conveys the information about the task, impacts the project in a much higher degree than we have previously thought. The information about a difficult task may be communicated in two ways, at least. First of all, the leader may point to the fact that the task is difficult and challenging, but it does not exceed the objective abilities of the people who will be working on it. In this case, the manager may highlight the experience of employees and may recall their earlier successes, but also failures, which had taught the team how to modify ineffective behavior. With this attitude, the employees will see the task as a challenge. In practical terms, it will translate into mobilization of resources to complete the task. People will experience positive stress, a boost of energy and they will be in the flow, thanks to positive emotions. If you see something as a challenge, your stress hormones usually reach the optimal level so that you are ready to act and function very effectively.

However, the manager may communicate the same task in a completely different way. He or she may emphasize that the task, although necessary, is very difficult and the chances of success are miniscule. The manager may also indicate that the employees were given similar projects in the past and they were not able to complete them. Faced with this type of message, the majority of people perceive the task as a threat. As the result, the level of stress significantly exceeds the optimal level, which results in mistakes and the lack of expected results. A message that emphasizes the threat may also result in the feelings of helplessness and it may decrease the level of enthusiasm, because the commutation of negative emotions drains your energy levels.

The Company You Keep...

In a 2012 study, Lee Moore, Samuel Vine, Mark Wilson and Paul Freeman tested how the manner of conveying information about a task impacts the accuracy of golf players. The study included 127 participants, who had never played gold before. They were divided by chance into two groups: Challenge and Threat.

People in the Challenge group were told that playing golf is not the easiest thing in the world, but after a short practice most people are able to play the game. Additionally, the coaches, who were helping the researchers, assured the participants that they believed in the participants’ abilities, by which they boosted the feeling of self-efficacy in the novice players.

On the other hand, the coaches in the Threat group communicated a different message to the participants. They emphasized that golf was a very difficult game, especially for people who had never played it before. Their messages were full of doubt regarding the abilities of the players. The coaches encouraged the players to try, but they openly challenged the possibility of achieving satisfactory outcomes.

The results of the study were surprising. Although the only difference between the groups was the way the instructions were passed on, people in the first group scored better than people in the second group. To be precise, the average distance of a golf ball from the hole was significantly smaller in the Challenge group than in the Threat group. Moreover, apart from the overall better score in the game, the researchers also registered a number of psychological benefits in the Challenge group. People in the Challenge group felt a subjectively lower level of anxiety related to the task than the people in the Threat group and they also interpreted the feeling differently. They understood the anxiety as a motivation to hit the ball correctly, while the people from the Threat group registered anxiety as an additional stressor of their cognitive systems.

The results of this study clearly show that every interaction with another person is a type of transaction, whether we like it or not. And although one of the basic human needs is self-determination and the feeling of autonomy associated with it, we do unconsciously absorb feelings, emotions, goals and attitudes of other people.

You are who you are by virtue of the company you keep. But usually only for a short time. Luckily and unluckily influences can be not only negative, but also positive.


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia 2/18”
Magazine available here »

ewa jarczewska gerc

About the Author

Ewa Jarczewska-Gerc, Ph.D. - social psychologist, who lectures in psychology at SWPS University. She specializes in psychology of individual differences and in motivational psychology. Her research interests include the relation between various forms of thinking, visualization, effectiveness and perseverance.

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