“How should a leader be?” If you are asked, a schema will come to your mind that includes not only the level of knowledge and work experience, but also some personality traits. These schemas may vary by culture. That is why in patriarchal societies sexist schemas are dominant.
Women leaders often have to battle sexist stereotypes that describe themselves as “too emotional” for effective leadership. A surprising new study shows that women are perceived as more effective leaders than men when they express calm and happy feelings. This effect is most pronounced for leaders in the highest positions in an organization.
The study, led by Thomas Sy, professor of psychology at UC Riverside (University of California) and Daan van Knippenberg, professor of management science at Drexel University, is the first to examine prototypes for the types of emotion exhibited by leaders, and concludes that people use implicit theories of leadership emotion when evaluating leader effectiveness.
Scientific studies in general show that personality traits affect the leader and the leadership process. In the literature, leadership is examined with implicit and explicit theories. Explicit theory is based on the observation and evaluation of the leader’s behavior, while implicit theory explores the conceptual structure of leadership. The implicit leadership approach predicts the existence of the conceptual structure related to the definition of the leader and what a leader should be in people’s minds. According to the implicit leadership theory, some thoughts about the expression of leader reside in the minds of individuals.
In the work of Sy and Knippenberg, cognitive leadership prototypes known as organizational leadership theories have been well studied. Research consistently reveals that effective leaders are seen as intelligent, dynamic, and charismatic, among other qualities. Individuals have a perception that men have these qualities more than women.
It appears that certain types of emotional expression can widely reduce perceptions of leader effectiveness. Sy, an organizational psychologist who studies leadership, wondered if people had implicit emotional prototypes or schemas that influence how they respond to leaders.
She designed a series of studies with Van Knippenberg that asked participants to describe what kinds of emotions leaders felt and expressed. The results revealed six emotional schemas related to leadership. Three of them—joy, calmness, self-esteem—were associated with effective leadership. The other three—anger-fear-regret—were associated with ineffective leadership.
Sy said, “Every role, including leaders, has feelings that need to be expressed. To be effective, leaders must exert emotional labor,” he says. “What was surprising in our research was that women were rated as more effective, and this can be explained by implicit theories of leadership emotions,” he adds.
Although men have more freedom to express negative emotions, Sy and van Knippenberg found that women are viewed more effectively when they do not express negative emotions.
Implicit theories of leadership sentiment had the most influence on perceptions of leadership effectiveness for leaders at the highest management levels. Moreover, the expression of negative emotions did not seem to weaken the effectiveness of senior leaders as much as they did when compared to lower-level leaders. Both male and female lower-ranking leaders were punished for expressing their feelings.
“When we interact with a leader on a regular basis, like our direct boss or supervisor, we have sufficient, first-hand information to evaluate their effectiveness,” Sy says. “However, we generally have little contact with the top leaders and less information about them. This is why we tend to rely on schemas. Schemas are powerful. They shape our behavior even in the absence of data,” he comments on the research results.
According to the theories of organizational leadership emotions, positive schemas associated with positive outcomes and negative schemas associated with negative outcomes affect perceptions of the leader’s effectiveness.
As Sy points out, scientific research shows that a leader’s emotions affect the performance of his followers. The leader’s emotions are contagious, they permeate the team and affect the effectiveness of the entire group.
The research findings help leaders manage their emotions to maximize effectiveness, increase team members’ performance and satisfaction, and provide a roadmap for future leadership researchers.