Emotional Leaders Can Affect Job Performance

Topic(s): citizenship behavior, leadership
Publication: Leadership Quarterly (August, 2015)
Article: How leaders' emotional displays shape followers' organizational citizenship behavior
Authors: L.F. Koning, G.A. van Kleef 
Reviewed by: Kevin Leung, Ph.D.

It is understandable for leaders to be emotional. 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 liking of 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 reduced liking of 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 (Koning & van Kleef, 2015) examined how a leader’s expression of happiness and anger affects whether or not employees are willing to perform tasks outside of their job descriptions (collectively known as organizational citizenship behavior), 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. Leaders should try to manage their emotions, and only express anger with great care.


Koning, L. F., & Kleef, G. A. (2015). How leaders emotional displays shape followers organizational citizenship behavior. The Leadership Quarterly, 26(4), 489-501.