The Emotional Footprint of a Leader Sets the Precedent for the Entire Culture

The Emotional Footprint of a Leader Sets the Precedent for the Entire Culture

A couple of years ago I coached a client who worked at a high-end fashion company.

He knew he made a mistake taking the job on his first day.

The onboarding process consisted solely of being shown where his desk and chair was. Nobody came around to say hello or offer their help if he needed it. There was no training, no welcoming, no nothing.

He sat in his chair wondering what exactly he was supposed to do.

“Okay,” he realized, “I have to figure this out on my own.” And so began a trial-by-fire process to learn the ropes. Every time he made a mistake, his boss would come out from her office to scold him publicly. In fact, the only reason she ever emerged from her office was to scold him.

That was how he learned the job: by training himself, making an innocent mistake, and then being told he did it all wrong.

When his boss sat down with him for his first performance review she told him, “We’ve never had someone make this many mistakes before.”

This was actually a line she had used on each person who held his position before him. He later learned that his boss was getting the same hostile treatment from her own boss, the president of the company. The president treated everyone under him the same way, and an atmosphere of fear and shame pervaded the entire company.

[There was even spyware on every computer in case the president decided to arbitrarily see what any person was doing at any particular time.]

The reason I’m sharing this story is to show how deeply a leader’s behavior can propagate throughout an organization. How a leader relates to the people around them can set a precedent for the entire culture.

The Emotional Footprint

Most of us are familiar with the idea of our carbon footprint, and we try to take steps to reduce the negative impact of our lifestyle on the Earth.

We understand that if we throw garbage on the ground, drive a car that gets 5 miles per gallon, and never recycle, those choices will have a real impact on the environment that only compounds over time.

Most of us take steps to make sure we’re not unnecessarily destroying the Earth with our carbon footprint, but we might not realize we are leaving an emotional footprint too:

The effect that a person or company has on the work environment of an organization and its people.

An emotional footprint is the result of emotional contagion, be it positive or negative. As a leader, your emotions and the way you relate to the people around you affects the organizational environment, oftentimes in ways you might not anticipate.

It’s when the emotional footprint is negative that is cause for concern. Like an oil spill in a coral reef, toxic emotions or interpersonal practices from a leader can cause drastic damages to the balance of an organization.

Emotional contagion spreads like wildfire.

So many factors contribute to the emotional footprint impressed upon a people and an organization. Just like there is a variety of different ways to pollute the earth, there is a plethora of ways a leader can sour the emotional environment of an organization.

It can be small, ongoing things.

It could be a bad mood or a short temper. It could be nitpicking, micromanaging, and mistrust. It could be ego or an unwillingness to admit mistakes. It could simply be a harsh and unappreciative communication style.

Or it could be something extreme, like Jackie Bucia, who was the emotional equivalent of the BP oil spill for the automotive group she worked for. In 2011, Jackie asked her employee, Debbie, to give her a kidney. After Debbie underwent surgery and gave away her kidney, Jackie (allegedly) fired Debbie for not recovering quick enough from the surgery leaving Debbie without health insurance.

It pollutes the minds of the people in the organization, which causes unproductive group dynamics, a lack of trust, and a decline in creativity and collaboration.

For example, if the CEO treats all employees - regardless of status - with respect and appreciation, then that sense of equality and respect will diffuse throughout the organization.

If, on the other hand, the CEO acts like she is a queen and every other employee is her servant, the emotional atmosphere will be tense; the struggle for power will hinder people working together towards the common, organizational goals.

For a leader, it’s always a good idea to conduct an emotional footprint test, to gauge the overarching emotional vibe running through the organization.

Emotions spread like wildfire, and if you have an outbreak of negativity polluting the air you want to contain it before it destroys productivity and morale.

Keep an open door policy

The easiest and quickest way to feel the pulse of your organization is to promote a culture where people feel comfortable to speak their mind, and share their feelings.

Promote psychological safety. Create a comfortable environment where speaking your mind is accepted, and expected. Feeling safe to be vulnerable, to take risks, to just be, can be powerfully motivating. Google conducted 200+ interviews over the course of 2 years looking at more than 250 attributes of 180+ active Google teams. They found the teams that had achieved psychological safety were the most successful.

Create a space where leaders accept feedback from employees, anyone can ask for help, and employees are allowed to make mistakes, especially when they are taking a risk or developing a new skill.

Related: Stop The Delusion That Can Destroy Your Potential For Success

Check yourself before your wreck yourself

Leaders must maintain a healthy daily dose of self-awareness. Before you enter the workspace conduct a self-examination:

  • What kinds of thoughts are floating through your head?
  • Do you feel happy or sad?
  • Are you feeling introverted or extroverted?
  • Are you inspired, indifferent, or unenthusiastic about work?

Rest assured whatever is going on in your head is going to create a chain reaction. If you are stressed, frustrated, and angry at the world, those emotions will play out in the workplace and they will spread throughout your team.

Create a positive onboarding experience

Make the first impression the right one. When a new hire starts make them feel welcome. Get the team together and give your new member a chance to get to know everyone.

Sounds simple and yet it is overlooked more often than you’d think. Many leaders simply do not take the time to incorporate a positive onboarding experience, which in turn sets the tone for that new hire’s experience at said company.

Submit yourself to a 360-Degree Assessment 

A 360-Degree assessment is a chance for your supervisors, direct reports, and peers to anonymously give you feedback about your strengths and weaknesses.

This is a very quick and easy – though not necessarily painless – way to get a snapshot of how your coworkers think of you.

Have the 360-Degree assessment be conducted by an executive coach or leadership development team to help analyze your feedback and develop a plan to improve upon the negative aspects of your personality or leadership style.

When it comes down to it, we’re talking about self-awareness, and widening the scope of your self-awareness isn’t always easy. It’s emotional, it’s personal, and directly confronts your ego. In the long run, however, you’ll be thankful you did it.

Dr. Nicole Lipkin
Human Behavior
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Dr. Nicole Lipkin is an internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, and the author of the two popular business books What Keeps Leaders Up At Night: Recognizing and ... Click for full bio

Most Read IRIS Articles of the Week: March 19-23

Most Read IRIS Articles of the Week: March 19-23

Here’s a look at the Top 11 Most Viewed Articles of the Week on, March 19-23, 2018

Click the headline to read the full article.  Enjoy!

1. Multi-Factor or Not Multi-Factor? That Is the Question

Let’s pretend you are a US investor that wants to deploy some of your money overseas.  You think international developed market stocks are attractive relative to US stocks, and you also think the US dollar will decline over the period you intend to hold your investment.  — Chris Shuba

2. The Lies Spread by Bankers About Cryptocurrencies

I had a chat with The Financial Times the other day, and provided lots of background as to why I don’t think cryptocurrencies are the choice of criminals. The comment that was reported was the following ... — Chris Skinner

3. Alternative Investments? You May Need New Shock Absorbers!

During the tumultuous red and green gyrations of the capital markets this year have your clients anxiously called to ask: “What’s going on with my portfolio?” What do you do when the usually smooth ride in your luxury automobile becomes as bumpy as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in the Happiest Place on Earth? What does the average investor do? — Ted Parker

4. Why Fear of Inflation Is Rattling Investors

Inflation is a bad thing, right? It make things more expensive, right? For those of us of, let’s say, a certain vintage, we recall the runaway inflation of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. So why does the Federal Reserve – in charge of managing the country’s currency and value thereof – actually try to create inflation? It’s called the inflation targeting and it matters to your money. — Bill Acheson

5. The Best Retirement Investments for a Steady Stream of Income

As you near your 60’s, your prime earning and saving years will transition into a period of time where you get to enjoy the “fruits of your labor,” a.k.a retirement. We call this segueing from accumulation to decumulation, the period when you will be drawing from your accumulated nest egg. Dana Anspach

6. An Emerging Theme In Thematic Investing

Exchange traded funds (ETFs) are popular vehicles for market participants looking to engage in thematic investing. Thematic investing looks to take advantage of future growth trends, including disruptive technologies. Given that forward-looking approach, stock-picking in the thematic universe is equally as hard, if not harder, than in traditional market segments. — Tom Lydon

7. 8 Winning Questions You Should Be Asking Every Prospect

It’s not enough for your salespeople to be product experts, they also need to be capable of having the kind of conversations that position them as business experts and even strategic resources. — Lisa Rose

8. 10 Steps to Successful Strategic Alliances

Business growth doesn’t come from wishful thinking. As you know, it takes a lot of hard work. The growth of your business is not an option – it is a necessity. Coordinating the right mix of strategies to gain market share and improve client acquisition rates is essential to advance your firm in today’s economy. — Michelle Mosher​​​​​​​

9. Keep It Light: Harnessing Humor for Financial Marketing Success

It’s undoubtedly true that investors’ financial security is no laughing matter, and this is reflected in the stolid, dour, reliable imagery and branding that is, by and large, the industry standard. This is hardly surprising—investors need to believe they’re placing their hard-earned money in the hands of experienced, trustworthy professionals. — Alexandra Levis​​​​​​​

10. Do the Economics of a Move to Independence Really Add Up?

The number one question advisors ask when exploring a move to independence is how the economics compare to accepting a recruiting package from a major firm. It’s certainly a valid concern, because while the recruiting deals being offered by the wirehouses are down, it is still very possible for a top advisor to get a really attractive hard-to-pass-up offer. — Mindy Diamond

11. Four Big Reasons Why Short-Term Muni Bonds Should Excite You

Municipal bonds might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a sexy investment. They don’t typically command news headlines like the stock market or bitcoin. — Frank Holmes

Douglas Heikkinen
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IRIS Co-Founder and Producer of Perspective—a personal look at the industry, and notables who share what they’ve learned, regretted, won, lost and what continues ... Click for full bio