Supported by earlier research, leaders expressing anger at work can lower their credibility and create dysfunction in the workplace. At the same time, recent research has found that leader credibility could depend on how followers judge, or infer, the anger expression. This information could provide leaders ways in which to manage their anger at work.
Researchers (Shao, Wang & Tse, 2018) sought to find which inferences of leader anger expressions increase leader effectiveness and which decrease it. Specifically, they looked at how followers’ views of personality impact whether they see the anger expression as a trait of the leader, or as the leader’s attempt to motivate them. Two of the studies they conducted showed significant results.
ATTITUDES ABOUT PERSONALITY
The authors recruited 89 undergraduate students to participate in an experiment. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one read an article asserting that the nature of personality is fixed, meaning that it doesn’t change over time. The second read an article asserting that personality is malleable, meaning that it can change over time. Next, the students were randomly assigned to one of two groups to watch a video of a manager giving a performance review to an average employee who did not improve over the last year. One group watched a video where the manager expressed anger and another group watched a video where the manager had a neutral emotion. The students then completed a questionnaire.
First, the study found that participants who thought of personality as fixed were more likely to consider the manager’s anger to be a personality trait. Second, the participants who perceived the manager’s anger as a personality trait were more likely to see the manager as ineffective.
IMPACT OF LEADER ANGER ON EMPLOYEE PERFORMANCE
The authors recruited 125 undergraduate students to participate in a second experiment in which they were randomly assigned to one of two groups: one that watched a video of a supervisor called Steve giving instructions on a writing task in an angry manner, and the other that watched the same video except with Steve having a neutral emotion. After watching the video, the students completed the writing task and filled out a questionnaire.
Participants who thought that the anger was a personality trait were less likely to consider Steve as effective, and they were less willing to work with him in the future. Their inference of his anger expression was not related to their performance on the task.
Two key findings came from these studies. First, there is some evidence that followers’ views of personality can impact whether they see leaders’ anger expressions as being motivational or as a personality trait. Second, there is some evidence that when followers perceive leaders’ expression of anger as a personality trait, they tend to view the leaders as less effective.
For leaders, though expressing anger may be a well-intentioned motivational tool, the authors recommend caution. Leaders should be aware that anger may not be perceived as motivational and could instead reduce effectiveness. It would be helpful for leaders to communicate their intentions clearly, such as explaining why they are frustrated or upset with poor performance.
The authors also recommend that followers remind themselves that their perception of their leader’s anger expression may not match the leader’s intentions. Reminding themselves that their leader may be trying to motivate or help address problems may increase leader credibility.
Shao, B., Wang, L. & Tse, H.H.M. (2018). Motivational or dispositional? The type of inference shapes the effectiveness of leader anger expressions. The Leadership Quarterly, 29, 709-723.