Leaders often believe that they should show anger to make subordinates more compliant. Though angry leaders are perceived by others to wield more power, followers warm up more easily to those showing more vulnerable emotions, such as sadness, a study has found.
Emphasising that leaders should consciously reflect on the emotions they display, the study revealed that though angry leaders are considered to be more powerful than sad leaders, they still score lower on their leadership report cards.
“Subordinates form impressions of their leaders when they view their displays of emotion in negative work situations”, said Tanja Schwarzmuller from the Technical University of Munich in Germany.
Although leaders might benefit from stressing their legitimate power, displays of anger could backfire as they cause subordinates to infer that their “boss” has strong coercive power but weak referent power — the ability of a leader to influence followers by making them identify and sympathise with him or her.
This referent power is also a crucial prerequisite for ensuring followers’ loyalty and commitment, the study said.
“Although angry leaders might be considered more powerful in general, their resulting power seems to rest upon a weak foundation”, Schwarzmuller observed.
For the study, the team conducted three sets of experiments. In the first two, groups of students or working adults assessed videos depicting angry and sad leaders. In the third, an online survey was conducted where the participants were shown relevant photographs.
As expected, angry leaders were viewed as having higher levels of different types of position power. This includes being legitimately instated over others, having the right to give or withhold rewards and coercive power to punish others.
Followers hence seem to think that leaders displaying anger, in comparison to leaders showing sadness, more strongly stress their legitimate position within the hierarchy of an organisation and the control over punishment and reward that is available to them.
However, when it comes to personal power, leaders displaying sadness seem to appeal to followers more strongly, the researchers stated.
On the other hand, showing sadness too may prove to be problematic, as it often reduces a leader’s legitimate power to punish – a power base that negatively affects leadership outcomes, the researchers concluded in the paper, published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.