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Staying calm and appearing happy helps leaders seem more effective, study finds

Researchers say this is particularly true for women in leadership roles

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Photo (c) Jacob Wackerhausen - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of California at Riverside explored what qualities are important for leaders to be the most effective

Their findings suggest that leaders tend to get the most respect from workers when they adopt certain emotional expressions during communication. The researchers explained that maintaining a happy, calm disposition is likely to yield the best results -- especially for women in positions of power. 

“When we interact with a leader regularly, such as our immediate boss or supervisor, we have enough firsthand information to evaluate their effectiveness,” said researcher Thomas Sy. “But we usually have little contact with leaders at the highest levels and less information about them. Therefore we tend to rely on schemas. Schemas are powerful. Even in the absence of data they shape our behavior.” 

What makes an effective leader?

The researchers conducted five surveys that included responses from more than 1,200 participants about what qualities best described effective leaders. Specifically, the team wanted to see what workers thought about their leaders’ emotions and how they would react to different emotional displays.

Ultimately, the researchers learned that having a generally positive attitude was beneficial for those in leadership roles. Participants responded best to leaders that were calm and cheery in interactions, as opposed to those who were frequently worried or angry. 

“Every role that has emotions that must be expressed, including leaders,” said Sy. “To be effective, leaders must perform emotional labor. What was surprising in our research is that women were rated more effective, and this could be explained by implicit theories of leadership emotions.” 

The researchers also found that when women and men both had positive demeanors, women were considered to be more effective leaders. However, status also played a role; those who were higher up the leadership chain had more freedom to express negativity without being considered ineffective, whereas those who had a lower rank didn’t have that much leeway in terms of being negative. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope these findings are helpful for consumers in leadership positions.

“Past research shows the emotions of a leader affect the performance of followers,” Sy said. “The leader’s emotions are contagious, spread throughout the team, and affect the effectiveness of the whole group.” 

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