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Jiaqing (Kathy) Sun

Sandy J Wayne

Yan Liu

August 21st, 2023

How a leader’s positive emotions improve employee engagement

0 comments | 60 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Jiaqing (Kathy) Sun

Sandy J Wayne

Yan Liu

August 21st, 2023

How a leader’s positive emotions improve employee engagement

0 comments | 60 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The emotions a leader expresses when they step into the office have an impact on employee engagement during the workday. Jiaqing (Kathy) Sun, Sandy J. Wayne and Yan Liu write that leaders should recognise the power of displaying consistent positive emotions. Luckily, employees’ emotions shift in response to leaders’ observable, not actual, feelings. This means that a manager’s smile can set the tone for an employee’s entire workday.


 

We have all felt the power of our leaders’ emotions. Perhaps it’s the CEO’s enthusiasm during a company-wide meeting or a supervisor’s frustration in a team huddle. When we observe our leaders’ emotions, our own emotions inadvertently fluctuate in response, and these feelings may also impact our attitudes and behaviours at work.

Steve Jobs was well-known as a leader with intense emotional expressions. Although this characteristic has often been portrayed as a dark side of this genius, John Sculley—the former Apple CEO—disclosed a little-known fact: Steve Jobs’ crying at the office was actually one reason employees loved working for him.

Our recent research confirms that leaders’ emotional expressions are not just fleeting moments; they may set the tone for the entire workday of the employees. Through a daily investigation across two weeks, we found that how an immediate supervisor felt in the morning significantly impacted employees’ work engagement in each workday. Here, we put work engagement under the spotlight, as it is a critical indicator capturing employees’ positive, fulfilling, work-related states of mind. When employees fully engage in their work, they are not only physically present in the workplace but also harness themselves to their work role.

As employees’ work engagement fluctuates over time, leaders often seek to promote it on a daily basis. It is obvious that the more engaged are the workdays, the better performance may be achieved. Our research first proved that leaders’ total amount of positive emotions, such as happiness, excitement and satisfaction, promote employees’ work engagement, as they can enhance positivity on that day. Similarly, leaders’ total amount of negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety and anger, can decrease employees’ work engagement on that day, by eliciting more negative feelings in them.

What our study has revealed about the emotional impact of leaders on employees’ work engagement can be explained by the Emotion-as-Social-Information (EASI) Theory. This theory suggests that the emotions of leaders convey vital social signals, helping employees decipher their current interpersonal situations. Given that leaders hold relatively more power within a work team, employees might pay greater attention to their leaders’ emotional expressions and use these observations to interpret their own situations. This could explain why some employees make it a habit to gauge their leaders’ moods as the first task of their day. Our research further extends the EASI theory. We do not only consider the “social signals” employees pick up from a leader’s emotions on a single day, but also the variability of these signals over multiple days.

Before diving into our research findings, let’s consider a real-life scenario. Imagine two leaders: one consistently expresses similar emotions, while the other’s emotions fluctuate frequently. Who would you prefer to work with? Some might opt for the first leader, whose emotions are predictable. Working with the second leader might be challenging, as our own emotions could fluctuate in tandem with theirs, leading to more emotional changes at work.

Our research compares leaders who exhibit varied emotions across days with those who show fewer emotional changes. The results indicate that when leaders’ emotions exhibit low variability, their positive emotions (but not their negative ones) have a more potent impact. When observing these leaders express positive emotions, followers consequently feel heightened positive emotions, leading to a high level of work engagement. However, the variability in a leader’s emotions does not alter the adverse effects of their negative emotions, which consistently reduce work engagement by eliciting similar feelings in employees, regardless of the extent to which the leader’s mood varies from day to day.

Taking these findings into account, our research underscores the importance of leaders maintaining consistent positive emotions over time. Among the various scenarios we examined in the study, the most effective leaders consistently display positive emotions across days. This emotional pattern not only boosts employees’ work engagement on a daily basis but also amplifies the impact of leaders’ positive emotions. Our research also indicates a consistent negative effect of leaders’ daily mood changes, demonstrating that fluctuations in emotion cannot mitigate this negative impact over time.

Warren Buffett once remarked, “If you cannot control your emotions, you cannot control your money.” His unwavering calm and optimism, particularly during financial turmoil, played a significant role in maintaining his employees’ positive emotions over time, illustrating the profound influence of a leader’s consistent and positive emotions. Our research confirms this potent impact of leader emotions and offers some practical insights.

First, a leader aiming to enhance their emotional intelligence (EQ) in management should acquire a deep understanding of emotions. They need to recognise what influences the emotional highs and lows of employees and the subsequent outcomes of these emotional states. Our research underscores the role of a leader’s own emotions as precursors to how their followers will feel. We focus on work engagement—a concept widely embraced by both academic scholars and management consultancy firms like Gallup and Aon Hewitt. Acquiring this knowledge of emotions is a crucial first step for leaders aiming to elevate their EQ in the workplace.

Next, leaders should recognise the power of maintaining consistent positive emotions in the workplace. The business world is akin to a battlefield. Maintaining a positive demeanour daily is no easy feat for leaders and it isn’t beneficial for them to suppress their negative feelings constantly. Fortunately, the EASI theory suggests that employees’ emotions primarily shift in response to the observable emotions of their leaders, rather than the leaders’ genuine emotions at all times. Thus, leaders should recognise that preparing for the next morning meeting entails more than just donning a sharp suit; a smile can set the tone for an employee’s entire workday.

Last, but not least, employees should be aware that their emotions can be influenced by those of their leaders. Observing the patterns of a leader’s emotions can help them strategise on leveraging these emotions in the workplace. If fortunate enough to work with a consistently positive leader, they can view the leader’s upbeat mood as an emotional boost. However, when dealing with a volatile leader, maintaining a certain emotional distance might be a wise strategy to safeguard their own emotional well-being at work.

 



 

About the author

Jiaqing (Kathy) Sun

Jiaqing (Kathy) Sun is an Assistant Professor at LSE's Department of Management.

Sandy J Wayne

Sandy J Wayne is a Professor and the Dean of the Business School at the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Yan Liu

Yan Liu is a Professor at Wuhan University, School of Business.

Posted In: Leadership | LSE Authors | Management

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