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Should Leaders Show Emotion?

The Trouble with Angry Birds in Politics

Should leaders express their emotions in public? I was asked this question by a journalist the other day. She was writing a feature on the Netherlands' general elections and wanted to know what I thought, as a psychologist, of the anger outbursts of one particular right wing political candidate (by the name of Geert Wilders) directed at his rivals. Is this a good way to show your leadership credentials and attract voters? The scientific evidence suggests that it is not, but the story is complicated.

When thinking about emotions and leadership, everyone remembers the tears that Hillary Clinton shed when running for the Democratic nomination. We remember the singing and laughing of Obama. What about the recent anger outburst of The Illinois State representative, Mike Bost, which became an instant hit on YouTube. Is it a good idea to express your sadness or rage in public when you are a leader or aspire to be in charge?

The short answer is that it is not a good idea. Psychologists have studied a range of personality traits that are associated with effective leadership, including the so-called Big Five traits. One of them is Neuroticism, which is defined as “a trait characterized by emotional outbursts, anxiety, aggression.” All the research suggests that this trait disqualifies people from being perceived as a good leader.1 (Although it does not necessarily mean that they do not get the top jobs in business and politics).

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The opposite of neuroticism, emotional stability, turns out to be one of the best predictors of effective leadership. It is not really surprising. We often look to our leaders to give us assurance and confidence in times of crisis. So when Hillary Clinton became weepy during a campaign’s speech in 2008, the general feeling was that it did not help her cause.

Sadness does not increase your appeal as leader. What about anger? Here the evidence is a bit mixed. Generally, anger displays of politicians work against their effectiveness because it shows that they lack self-control and are prone to violence. Voters may not want such a person in charge of their country, certainly not in peace time. But there seems to be one particular group of followers who respond positively to an angry leader.2 These are people who are themselves low in agreeableness. Angry people vote for angry politicians. This explains the popularity of the Angry Birds in politics like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Le Pen in France or perhaps the Tea Party movement in the US.

What about positive emotions? Should leaders express their joy, pleasure and happiness in public? Researchers have found that expressions of happiness by leaders increase the likeability of leaders and it can even increase their charisma. In a classic study, political scientists videotaped speeches from presidential candidates, including the incumbent president Ronald Reagan in the 1984 elections.3 People watching the tapes coded the emotional expressions of the candidates in terms of three distinct emotions, (1) happiness/reassurance, (2) fear/evasion, and (3) anger/threat. Results showed that the candidates received more support when they displayed more happiness/reassurance. This effect was stronger for Reagan than for Mondale. Interestingly, this effect occurred regardless of what party people politically identified with and it did not matter what the politicians actually said because there was no sound on the videotapes.

So if you want to be seen as an effective leader, it helps to control your emotions in public. If you want to display any emotion -- to ensure that voters do not mistake you for a robot -- be positive and happy as this will increase your charisma. Avoid negative emotions like sadness or anger (unless you want to appeal to an angry crowd). Finally, avoid expressing a fake emotion because the audience will pick it up. Nothing worse than having a leader who is not authentic -- who laughs when there is really nothing to laugh about.

References

1. Judge, T. et al. (2002). Personality and Leadership. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765-780.

2. Van Kleef, G. et al. (2010). On angry leaders and agreeable followers. Psychological Science, 21, 1827-1834.

3. Sullivan, D. and Masters, R. (1988). Happy warriors. American Journal of Political Science, 32, 345-368.

Mark van Vugt is a professor of social and organizational psychology at the VU University Amsterdam and a research associate at Oxford University.

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