What happens when a leader is sad at work?

sad-employeeWith employee engagement levels at well recorded lows, there has understandably been considerable attention given to making people happier at work.  There have been a couple of interesting studies recently that have explored just what this might mean.

The first, which I wrote about earlier this year, looked at how happiness manifests itself in the behavior of a leader.

The leaders were tested for various traits, including happiness, satisfaction, calmness and excitement at work, with these forming a general score of pleasantness at work.  Perhaps not surprisingly, this pleasantness score was heavily linked to the commitment the leader had to their organization, and their overall job satisfaction.

It was only the former however that seemed to correspond with their abilities as a change agent, with job satisfaction seeming to reduce their capabilities rather than enhance them.

Opposite ends of the spectrum

What might be happening at the other end of the spectrum?  A recent study set out to explore the impact of displaying emotions such as sadness and anger for leaders, and in particular on how powerful we perceive them to be.

The study saw a number of experiments conducted where participants were shown either images or videos of leaders displaying either anger or sadness.

Somewhat predictably the angry levels were rated as being more powerful, with participants suggesting that such individuals were more justified in their rank than other types of leader.

Interestingly however, when leaders displayed sadness, they were much more likely to appeal to followers than their angry peers.

“Subordinates form impressions of their leaders when they view their displays of emotion in negative work situations”, the authors say.

Anger is doubly dangerous because employees tend to follow the example set by their boss.  For instance, a study from 2014 found that abusive behaviour towards an employee not only affects that specific employee, but it also encourages other members of the team to begin acting abusively towards one another.

“That’s the most disturbing finding,” the researchers said, “because it’s not just about individual victims now, it’s about creating a context where everybody suffers, regardless of whether you were individually abused or not.”

Of course, showing sadness is not without risk either, but it seems to be the most benevolent of the ‘negative’ emotions as it appears to broaden ones appeal amongst your team.

All of which might be food for thought the next time you feel your blood boiling at work.

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