Positive emotions: To suppress or share?

UB School of Management expert Danielle Tussing explores the research into why — and when — leaders should share positive emotions at work.

Colleagues laugh during a team meeting.

By Danielle Tussing

Danielle Tussing
Danielle Tussing

Leaders often mistakenly believe that in order to be effective, they must remain stoic and unemotional, or even motivate others through fear.

They may be concerned that if they are too upbeat, their followers won’t take them seriously. Or if they are too positive, it will impair their decision-making skills.

A large body of research on leadership and emotions suggests, however, that employees and organizations benefit from positive leadership.

Leaders who naturally exhibit positive emotions tend to receive more favorable evaluations of their leadership abilities from their followers. However, the benefits of positive leadership reach well beyond leaders themselves.

Spread good vibes

A key reason positive leadership matters is that it typically fosters positive emotions among followers. Through a process called emotional contagion, we tend to easily and unconsciously “catch” the mood of those around us. When leaders emit positivity, their followers tend to feel more positive emotions too. The reverse also is true, such that when those around us are in a bad mood, we start feeling negatively too. Thus, when leaders convey positivity in the form of hope, humor or joy, it can automatically activate that same emotion in those around them.

Improve the bottom line

An expansive body of research on emotions at work also indicates that, beyond making others feel good, positive emotions have been associated with a number of beneficial outcomes for employees and the organization’s bottom line, including improved job performance, creativity, interpersonal helping, team-level cooperation and reduced turnover. Clearly, leaders should share, rather than hide or suppress, their positive feelings at work.

Build team culture

In addition to being mindful of the emotions they display on a day-to-day basis, leaders can also contribute to a healthy emotional climate at work through intentional efforts to set the emotional culture of an organization. Consider organizations like Zappos and Southwest, where leaders model, encourage and celebrate fun and joy.

One of my favorite examples of positive leadership dates back more than 25 years, when Southwest Airlines and Stevens Aviation were both vying for the slogan “Just Plane Smart.” Rather than settling the dispute in the courtroom, Southwest CEO Herb Kelleher and Stevens Aviation Chairman Kurt Herwald met to settle the issue — in a wrestling ring. At an event jokingly coined the “Malice in Dallas,” they competed for the airline slogan with a friendly and hilarious arm wrestle, avoiding legal fees and raising money for charity instead. The legacy of Kelleher’s positive leadership lives on through Southwest’s culture today.

Be thoughtful

Of course, positive displays of emotions should not be unnecessarily feigned or forced. Leaders need to be mindful of how their emotional displays relate to the bigger situation or context.

Being overly chipper after announcing a round of layoffs is inappropriate and likely to upset, rather than cheer up, employees who remain with the organization. When faced with difficult scenarios, leaders can help foster a healthy climate by listening to others, displaying empathy and being realistic while expressing optimism about the future.

Last, it is important to acknowledge that leaders vary in their propensity to experience positive emotions. Some people have higher “trait positive affect,” which is the disposition to feel energetic and upbeat, rather than sluggish and down. Not surprisingly, positive leadership should occur more naturally for those who have more of a joyful personality.

Still, all leaders can take steps to bring positivity into the workplace by monitoring their own feelings and regulating their outward expressions of emotions, such that positive feelings are shared. Ultimately, it is impossible to keep emotions out of the workplace given our human nature, and empirical research demonstrates that employees and organizations thrive when leaders refrain from leading through stoicism, fear or anger and instead exhibit joy, hope, gratitude and other forms of positivity.

The article was first published as part of 52 Weeks of Leadership, a program hosted by the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness (CLOE).

Danielle Tussing, PhD, is an assistant professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management. She teaches organizational behavior and administration, and her research interests include work motivation, leadership and work-life boundary management. Her work has been published in the Academy of Management Journal and the Journal of Organizational Behavior, and featured in the Wall Street Journal and The Economist.

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