When we think of charismatic leadership, we see someone who is energetic, inspiring, and likeable. Charismatic leaders can be powerful agents of change by getting others on board to achieve their vision. In fact, research has shown that charismatic leaders tend to have more satisfied followers and better company performance.
WHAT IS “CHARISMA” AND WHO TENDS TO HAVE IT?
Charismatic leaders tend to show a consistent set of leadership behaviors: They are confident and inspirational; they see new opportunities and recognize followers’ abilities to achieve them; they are sensitive to followers and draw their influence upon mutual liking and respect. As one can imagine, people who are more extraverted (outgoing, dominant) and open to experience (imaginative, creative) might be more charismatic when they lead. Likewise, leaders who value stimulation (excitement, variety, and risk-taking) would be more likely to exercise charismatic leadership. However, new research suggests that the work environment affects this link between leaders’ predispositions and their perceived charisma.
THE ROLE OF WORKPLACE STRESS
Oreg and Berson (2015) examined how stress affects the relationship between personality and leaders’ perceived charisma in two studies. In the first—a simulation with leaders in charge of a desert survival exercise for a small group—they found that leaders who are more extraverted or more open to experience tend to be seen as more charismatic by their group, but only among groups in the low-stress condition. For groups that were in the high-stress condition (where the exercise timeline got shortened and additional information was introduced unexpectedly), leaders who were more extraverted or open were not more likely to be seen as charismatic.
Similar findings were found in a second study where company executives who valued stimulation tend to be rated as more charismatic, but only when their subordinates reported that workplace stress was low. In workplaces that were rated as more stressful, there was no relationship between leaders’ value of stimulation and their perceived charisma.
The authors suggest that under stress, those who are predisposed to be charismatic tend to channel their energy towards handling that stress, which bears a cost on their charismatic behavior.
IMPLICATIONS: KNOW THYSELF—AND YOUR SITUATION
Leaders can be selected into an organization based on their personality and values, often with hopes that they could be charismatic leaders. However, it is important for organizations to recognize that external forces like workplace stress can affect how personality relates to perceived leadership. To improve selection, organizations can incorporate assessment exercises with different circumstances or design test questions to be more situation-specific.
For leaders, it is important to distinguish between situations in which your personality is more or less effective for inspiring others. What comes naturally in motivating others in normal circumstances may not fare as well in stressful situations. The authors suggest that leaders consider being more directive and mechanical in encouraging others to work in times of stress.
Oreg, S., & Berson, Y. (2014). Personality and Charismatic Leadership in Context: The Moderating Role of Situational Stress. Personnel Psychology, 68(1), 49-77. doi:10.1111/peps.12073