Can Leaders Use Negative Emotions to Increase Job Performance?

Many leaders consider themselves, among other labels, coaches. And it makes sense—the same way that coaches show support, teach others, and lead a team to victory, good leaders do the same. Yet, how far does this metaphor stretch when we apply it to say, football or basketball coaches? Some say these coaches share many qualities with organizational leaders, including the inspirational speeches they give their teams—or at times, angry or disappointed speeches. As it turns out, there are more similarities than we might think, including how team members react to these intense emotional displays.


Researchers (Staw, DeCelles, & de Goey, 2019) examined 304 locker room speeches that took place during halftime of high school and college games. These speeches can sometimes be unpleasant, especially when the team’s performance hasn’t been great. Researchers suspected a curvilinear relationship between level of intensity of the coaches’ unpleasantness and the team’s performance. This type of relationship makes an upside down ‘U’ shape when plotted on a graph. In other words, at first team performance would improve—the higher the intensity, the better the performance. At a certain point, however, the high level of intensity would begin to contribute to a decline in performance instead.


As the researchers expected, this is exactly what happened. At first, the high level of intensity in anger, disappointment, and unpleasantness in the speeches was positively related to team performance, and the more pleasant the speech, the worse the performance. Yet, as unpleasantness increased to extremely high levels, performance started to worsen.


These findings have important implications for organizational leaders, especially as they attempt to coach and inspire their teams through difficult times. First, unpleasant emotional displays such as anger or disappointment are capable of improving team performance—to an extent. Leaders should not mistakenly think they must always display positive and happy expressions. If team performance requires a more realistic negative reaction, then leaders should respond accordingly. On the other hand, leaders should understand that they can easily go too far. Beyond certain levels, unpleasant emotional displays do more harm than good. As with most things, moderation seems to produce the best results.


B.M. Straw, K. A. DeCelles, & P. de Goey (2019). Leadership in the locker room: how the intensity of leaders’ unpleasant affective displays shapes team performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 1-12.