Article: Monday, 10 February 2014

New research shows that emotional displays from leaders can have a profound and influencing effect on the way that employees think, feel and behave relative to an organisation’s visionary goals.

Two girls sitting on a windowsill, engaged in a cheerful conversation with smiles on their faces.

Effective Leaders let their emotions show

These days, business leaders tend to strive toward being calm and collected. Executive coaches teach it. Some professionals reportedly even take Botox not just to keep the wrinkles at bay, but also to sculpt their faces into a state of permanent serenity. However, if recent research is correct, they might be better off in acting class: the latest research suggests that far from something you should shy away from, emotions are actually a crucial part of persuasion.

This isn’t entirely news. From the ancient Greeks on, people have known that a lot of leadership comes down to an ability to persuade, and that a key part of that ability rests on how well the speaker can create an emotional connection with his audience.  Aristotle, in fact, saw appealing to a person’s emotions as one of the three key facets of persuasion.

Over the next 2,500 years, however, people have not learned much more about how this process works. Even such questions as what kind of emotion is most effective for what kind of message have been answered less by scholarship than gut instinct. Obviously, many leaders developed an intuitive sense of what kind of emotional displays might support or undercut what kind of message, but no one proved it in any kind of systematic way.

How you say something tends to matter more than what you say

Emotion to Vision

About 15 years ago, this began to change. Although knowledge about the nature of persuasion remains fragmented, researchers have learned more now about the dynamics of jobs that require “emotional labour,” such as waiters and waitresses, airline attendants, hotel desk clerks, and other service employees expected to provide “service with a smile.” Specifically, some scholars found that the more the person actually felt the emotions they presented, the higher their level of customer satisfaction.

However, quite how this works has remained unclear. For example, we still don’t know much about the reason emotional displays of leaders help them convey a long-term vision or even what kinds of displays work best in what situation.

Overall, scholars have confirmed the general intuition and found that how you say something tends to matter more than what you say. Other researchers have found a correlation between enthusiasm and a perception of charisma, and optimistic emotions tend to be rated as more effective.

Somewhat more surprisingly, scholars have also determined that emotional displays tend to have a profound, long-term influence on how employees think, feel, and behave at work. For example, expressions of negative emotion tend to lead to more analytical thinking in a group and can lead to increased effort, while positive emotions may encourage people to be more creative and feel more open and positive about a company’s prospects. Emotional displays even seem to support better group coordination.

These insights are useful as far as they go. However, because the most valuable work a leader does is sell his long-term vision, we needed to know more about how emotional displays and expressions can help leaders encourage people to support their vision.

Daan Stam, an RSM colleague who works with me on this research, made a distinction in his PhD dissertation between visions of an optimistic future ideal that appeals to growth values and opportunities, and towards which people might stride, and visions of an undesirable, dark future, from which people need to stay away and that appeals to values such as obligations, duties, and responsibilities.

He found that whether leaders can effectively communicate a positive or negative vision depends on the personality of the followers or the context of the vision. In some contexts, people seem to be more attracted by a warmer vision and in other contexts they can be more receptive to a chillier vision designed to encourage prevention.

His work pointed to a new question: how can leaders make their vision easier to accept regardless of the context or the follower characteristics?

Our research suggests that what matters most in persuading a group to follow a long-term goal is not whether the emotional state itself is positive or negative but how closely it aligns with the long-term vision of the message. For example, former Vice President Al Gore’s concerned tone in An Inconvenient Truth fit his vision of the seriousness of global warming (a prevention focus), while the 1998 campaign of President Barack Obama’s fit the optimistic “Yes, We Can” vision of his campaign (a promotion focus).

This congruence can develop in a number of ways. We found that in general, leader enthusiasm motivates followers toward a promotion focus, which leads to higher follower performance for certain kinds of growth-oriented goals (Sell more! Serve better!) Leader concern works the other way, by encouraging followers thinking more about prevention (don’t lose this account!) But frustration can also be effective when paired with a growth-oriented vision (if only you could straighten this software out, we would sell more!).

Only connect

Most business communications advisors instinctively try to accentuate the positive. We found, however, that positive or negative is not the crucial aspect of whether a message is effective. The effectiveness of the emotional content depends largely on how it relates to the end-goal: in the end, there are no bad emotions, just emotions that don’t suit the purpose.

Far from hiding their feelings, the most successful executives will be those whose emotional displays correlate most closely with their vision of where the organization needs to go. Our findings suggest that leaders capable of delivering strong emotional displays that match their long-term vision will be more successful in motivating followers to share and pursue the vision.

Based on a number of experiments with students at RSM and our review of the academic literature, we believe that managers should keep in mind the following:

Frustration may be the most effective kind of emotional outburst when an opportunity is blocked.

Agitation may be more appropriate when survival is at stake.

Beyond better acting skills, try to develop greater awareness and knowledge of emotions and their consequences.

If you don’t have much emotion behind your message, the message is likely to be much less effective.

Recruiters and human resource administrators should search for candidates who have abilities that are predictive of a strong capability for emotional communications, including emotional intelligence.

Of course, many questions about the relationship between emotion and persuasion remain. One of the most compelling is not only about the impact of the vision on the group and which other emotions can help leaders, but also how the leader develops a compelling vision in the first place. How can we help leaders with the development and formation of a vision? Are there particular personalities and/or skills that lend themselves to developing a persuasive, long-term vision?

Once we know the answers to all those questions, we should be a few steps closer to a model of leadership that managers can use to transform their organization, and eventually, their world. That’s certainly our vision.

Dr. Merlijn Venus

Associate Professor

University of Amsterdam

Profile picture of Dr. Merlijn Venus
Pile of books with vibrant bookmarks protruding from various pages, symbolizing in-depth research.

Related articles

RSM Discovery

Want to elevate your business to the next level using the latest research? RSM Discovery is your online research platform. Read the latest insights from the best researchers in the field of business. You can also subscribe to the newsletter to receive a bimonthly highlight with the most popular articles.

Do you want to learn more about this subject?

Check out these RSM education programmes

Diploma Programme in General Management

Diploma Programme in General Management

  • 24 Jun 2024
  • 1 year
    • €14,825 -
    • €15,425 depending on modules chosen *
    • * see details on the page

Your contact for more information:

Danielle Baan

Science Communication and Media Officer

Portrait of Erika Harriford-McLaren

Erika Harriford-McLaren

Corporate Communications & PR Manager

Erasmus University campus in autumn, showcasing its iconic red trees, viewed from across the campus pool.