Emotional leaders: is positivity or sincerity more effective?

People may be moved by the positive or negative emotions expressed by their leaders, but they also view those manifest emotions with a critical eye.

This is the initial finding in a series of new studies on the effect of the emotional leader by Marion Eberly, a doctoral student at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, and Christina Fong, an assistant professor of management and organization at the Foster School.

While existing research has explored the ways that followers passively “catch” a leader’s emotion via social contagion processes, Eberly and Fong find that people also actively consider the emotions their leaders express, and question their sincerity.

According to initial studies, when leaders emote negatively, followers are more suspicious of their sincerity. When leaders are positive, there is less suspicion of sincerity. And, not surprisingly, leaders considered to be sincere are also more effective at motivating followers to work toward a common goal.

“Followers play an important role in the effectiveness of leaders,” Fong says. “They are not just mindless automatons. They think about the emotions they see in their leaders and care whether they are sincere or manipulative.”

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The series of studies was inspired by Eberly’s industry experience working under less-than-trustworthy leadership but crystallized by Hillary Clinton’s much-debated emotional display during a critical stage of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary race. Were those tears genuine or manufactured? Did voters care?

Eberly and Fong’s first two studies marked students’ responses to scenarios in which a leader displays negative or positive emotions. An ongoing follow-up asks mid-career professionals to recount their actual response to a specific event involving an emotional interaction with a leader. A final study will immerse students in a task led by a supervisor who expresses positive or negative emotions, then measure their performance in the wake of this display.

Now that the researchers know that people view the emotions of their leaders with skepticism, the goal is to identify which makes for more effective leadership: positivity or sincerity. “As followers, do we want to see a leader who’s happy and upbeat—genuinely or not—or someone who’s going to give it to us straight? The data is leaning toward positivity over sincerity, but we can’t confidently conclude this until the studies are complete.”