Emotional Leaders Can Affect Job Performance

Publication: Leadership Quarterly (August, 2015)
Article: How leaders' emotional displays shape followers' organizational citizenship behavior
Reviewed by: Kevin Leung, Ph.D.


It’s understandable that we have emotional leaders. After all, on a typical work day, people can experience many emotions. We can be happy about our work, frustrated at a missed deadline, or angry at the way a co-worker treated us. People often express these emotions to others around them, and these displays can affect the performance of those on the receiving end. This influence is especially potent when the displays come from more powerful people like organizational leaders.



Past research has shown that a leader’s expression of happiness can bring out positive emotions in followers that enhance their work performance and increase their liking for the leader. On the other hand, a leader’s expression of anger could either enhance performance (if followers think that the leader is not pleased about their work) or reduce performance (if it brings out negative emotions and less liking for the leader). However, past studies have mainly focused on tasks that are within the scope of an employee’s job and not their voluntary or discretionary performance.

This research examined how a leaders’ expression of happiness and anger affect whether or not employees are willing to perform tasks outside of their job descriptions (collectively known as “organizational citizenship behaviors”), such as working overtime when needed, helping a new co-worker, or putting in a good word about their company.



The researchers found that employees were less willing to perform voluntary “organizational citizenship behaviors” after seeing a leader display anger upon a project’s failure, compared to seeing a leader display happiness upon a project’s success or failure. However, the employee’s reduced willingness only followed when the leader’s anger display was deemed “inappropriate,” as when the employee put in more effort than his or her teammates on the project.

In a follow up study, the authors found that participants were less willing to work overtime after being confronted by an angry rather than a happy leader. Again, this effect happened when the anger display was “inappropriate” (that is, when the participant performed above average on a task). A leader’s display of anger in such an inappropriate situation reduces liking for the leader and subsequent motivation to work.



Like everyone else, leaders experience and display their emotions. Unlike everyone else, their displays can have more of an effect on the work of their followers. While positive displays can increase liking and motivation in many situations, negative displays like anger can sometimes backfire, especially when they are tied to prior good performance. Anger should be exercised by leaders with great care.

Emotional Labor: How Faking a Smile at Work Affects Job Satisfaction

Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: A meta-analytic structural model of dispositional affectivity and emotional labor
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

Have you ever given a fake smile to someone at work even though you weren’t feeling happy or very excited to see him? If so, you’ve engaged in a process known as emotional labor in which you manage your emotions in order to act in an appropriate way in a work setting. Maybe you wouldn’t go to such efforts when around friends and family, instead feeling free to express the emotions you actually feel. In a work setting though, it may not be best to show your irritation about missing lunch to your brand new client.

Emotional Labor: Surface Acting and Deep Acting

Previous research has divided emotional labor into two categories: surface acting and deep acting. Surface acting refers to expressing the emotion that the situation requires even though it may not be the emotion that you are feeling. For example, you may need to smile and be cheerful when greeting a client even though you feel neither happy nor cheerful. Deep acting also refers to expressing the emotion that the situation requires, but instead of merely faking it, you try to generate the required emotions by thinking of historical events or associations. For example, you may need to smile and be cheerful when greeting a client, and even though you’re feeling tired and grumpy, you generate happiness and cheer by thinking of positive associations or of things that make you happy.

How Emotional Labor Affects Job Performance and Satisfaction

Through a literature review of over 116 samples, the results of this investigation indicate that the type of emotional strategy utilized – surface or deep – affects job performance. Specifically, those who use a surface-emotional-labor strategy are less satisfied with their job and more stressed and exhausted, while those who use a deep-emotional-labor strategy are more satisfied, less stressed, and perform their job better. In explaining this finding, the authors believe that surface emotional strategies have worse affects on job performance because they require more effort in order to overcome the cognitive dissonance between an emotion felt and an emotion expressed. Though this result is important for the job performance of anyone with a client-facing role, it is particularly important for those in the service industry in which customer satisfaction is key.

Dealing with Difficult Customers: address the problem, not the emotion

Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: More than happy to help? Customer-focused emotion management strategies
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

For customer service agents job performance is affected by which emotion management strategies they use when dealing with difficult customers. According to research by Little, Kluemper, Nelson, and Ward, problem-focused strategies like addressing a problem’s source, decrease caller’s negative feeling and result in positive customer feelings. On the other hand, emotion-focused strategies like distracting the caller from a problem increases in the intensity of a customer’s negative emotions and a decreases their positive emotions.

In other words, if the customer service representative addresses a problem the customer calls about, the customer has a better experience than if the CSR simply focuses on how the caller is feeling. Further, it was also found that the behavior of the caller affected the behavior of the customer service agent, which in turn influenced the caller’s experience. Customers who expressed negative emotions towards a customer service agent tended to trigger a less effective, more emotion-focused strategy by the customer service agent. In contrast, customers who were more pleasant elicited a problem-focused strategy and tended to have a better experience overall.

This result was found by evaluators who examined 228 recorded-customer-service calls. The evaluators had extensive experience as customer service managers. One evaluator assessed the behavior by the customer; the other analyzed the behavior of the employee. In sum, this result is not only helpful for people who work in the customer service industry, but also for customers seeking help. Calling angry or upset doesn’t often get the best outcome for either party in the exchange.

Whistle While You Look For Work

Publication: Personnel Psychology (2013)
Article: Be happy, don't wait: The role of trait affect in job search
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

Staying positive increases your chances of finding a job, according to a recent study in Personnel Psychology. Feelings of positive affect relate to job outcomes, such as the number of interviews and job offers. Specifically, positivity influence a job seeker’s motivation and procrastination behavior, which in turn influences job-search outcomes. So, with unemployment at nearly 8%, try to stay positive, and hopefully, good things will come your way.

245 graduating college students searching for a full-time job completed one survey in September and a second survey in December during the on-campus recruiting season. Over 50 % of the participants were women, and the average age was 22. For the surveys, the first assessed positive/negative affect, and the second assessed procrastination, motivation, and job-search outcomes.

Job seekers with a positive outlook are, unsurprisingly, more likely to persist and less likely to put off job searching. While a smile and a hopeful viewpoint are not a magic tonic, they do offer a better way to approach the quest for employment.

Do you have any tips for staying positive when you look for work?

Envy At Work: The Tale of Two Envies

Publication: Academy of Management Review (January, 2012)
Article: Envy As Pain: Rethinking the Nature of Envy and Its Implications for Employees and Organizations
Reviewed by: Nupur Deshpande

Envy. Since historic times, social comparisons has spurred many conflicts. Envy at work comes in many masks. Undermining someone socially. Not helping them. We can even allow our own job performance to suffer out of envy-driven resentment or spite. We all know how envy can have disastrous consequences. But is envy always bad?

Researchers think this is just one side of the story. The other side is ‘benign envy’ or envy with helpful consequences both for the individual (the envious), the envied, and the organization. While we would like to fight some employees and flee from the rest, we modify our behavior based on three factors:

  • How we feel about ourselves,
  • How we perceive the envied target, and
  • What organizational support we receive.

People who feel in control of themselves experience less anxiety and typically engage in benign envy because sabotaging behavior goes against their positive self-image of high performance standards. They feel challenged rather than threatened. Because they are more engaged in their job, they take the opportunity to learn and grow. They respond to negative feedback and setbacks with increased effort. Secondly, achievements of competent, “warm” people who are envied are perceived as justified, despite being the target of envy. We are more likely to help them as a result. Lastly, if the envious trust the systems in an organization, they believe that the rewards are well-deserved and that they too would receive the same rewards if they worked just as hard.

So really, at the end of the day, envy is more about the perspective of the envious person, than it is about the one envied. A system that is perceived as just will help keep envy from becoming counterproductive.

Do customers make you mad? You have permission to vent

Publication: Journal of Management (FEB 2013)
Article: Alleviating the burden of emotional labor: The role of social sharing
Authors: McCance, A. S., Nye, C. D., Wang, L., Jones, K. S., & Chiu, C.
Reviewed by: Alexandra Rechlin

imagery_09_11_08_000183If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you know that some customers can be incredibly frustrating. You get angry, your blood pressure rises, you try really hard to hold your tongue, and then you complain to your coworkers later. And you feel better.

It turns out that venting to your coworkers really does make a difference. In a recent lab study, Silke McCance and her colleagues subjected participants to both neutral and difficult “customers.” Not surprisingly, participants who had to deal with a difficult customer were more likely to be angry and use surface acting (in other words, they hid their true feelings).

Social sharing is just what it sounds like – sharing an experience with others. Three different types of social sharing assessed in this study were the sharing of feelings, facts, and positive experiences. The authors found that all three types of social sharing were beneficial in reducing anger caused by difficult customers. Although anger decreased over time for all participants, those who were able to share their experiences with others showed an even greater decrease in anger.

The results from this study have pretty big implications if you work in the service industry. A lot of companies discourage employees from venting about negative situations with customers, but this study suggests that social sharing is very helpful in dealing with these types of situations. Allow your employees break time to talk about their negative encounters with customers; you’ll be doing your employees, and your company, a favor.

McCance, A. S., Nye, C. D., Wang, L., Jones, K. S., & Chiu, C. (2013). Alleviating the burden of emotional labor: The role of social sharing. Journal of Management, 39, 392-415. doi: 10.1177/0149206310383909

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management





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Get Ahead by Getting Emotional (IO Psychology)

Topic: Leadership, Emotions
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (NOV 2012)
Article: Looking Down: The Influence of Contempt and Compassion on Emergent
Leadership Categorizations
Authors: S. Melwani, J.S. Mueller, J.R. Overbeck
Reviewed By: Ben Sher, M.A.

PR_027-_SI_-_23_05_12-416Do you want people to think of you as a leader?  Do you want to cultivate and mobilize hordes of dedicated minions in pursuit of world domination?  If you answered yes to either of these questions, you are in the right place.  New research by Melwani, Mueller, and Overbeck (2012) has provided new insight into why certain people are perceived as leaders.  Unlike past research, which has focused mainly on personality traits, this study found that certain emotions can be influential as well.

In three separate studies, the researchers found that people who display two types of emotions are more likely to be perceived as leaders. These two emotions are contempt and compassion.  Even though contempt seems like a bad emotion and compassion seems like a good one, these two emotions have something in common.  Both involve making a downward social comparison.  This means that someone who displays these emotions appears to be better off than the target of the emotions.  For example, you might show contempt for someone who has failed in some way that you have not.  Similarly, you might show compassion for someone when some element of their life is worse than yours.

But even if people who display contempt and compassion look better by comparison, why does this make people view them as leaders?  The researchers found that displaying contempt and compassion make people look smarter by comparison.  Why has the other person failed at something and you have not?  Perhaps it is because you are smarter.  Why has something bad happened to the other person and has not happened to you?  Perhaps it is because you are smarter.  This fits with past research that shows that people who seem to be smart are also identified as leaders.

So there you have it:  If you want to gain influence over others, you need to display the right kind of emotions.  It doesn’t matter if they are good emotions like compassion or bad emotions like contempt.  As long as your emotions make you seem better than the target of your emotions, you have a chance to affect the way people think of you and increase your perceived leadership abilities.  As devious as this sounds, this study gives us greater understanding about how leaders emerge.  Armed with this knowledge, we are in a better position to select and train leaders who will be successful at earning the respect of followers.

Melwani, S., Mueller, J.S., & Overbeck, J.R. (2012). Looking down: The influence of contempt and compassion on emergent leadership categorizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(6), 1171-1185. 

human resource management, organizational industrial psychology, organizational management




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