Why Melancholy Managers Inspire Loyalty

Why Melancholy Managers Inspire Loyalty
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Why you should care

Because it’s easier to be loyal to someone who has your back.

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“It is far safer to be feared than loved,” political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, his 16th-century treatise on effective government. Love is finicky, he goes on to explain, while “fear is bound by the apprehension of punishment, which never relaxes its grasp.” Wrathful, iron-fisted leadership might keep followers in line — but new research suggests it has its shortcomings.

Sad managers inspire more loyalty than mean ones.

A recent study in the Journal of Business and Psychology found that while people see leaders who respond to negative situations with anger as more powerful overall, they might feel less loyal to them and be more likely to sabotage them. Leaders who respond with sadness to negative situations might seem less powerful overall but more warm and sympathetic, which ultimately deepens followers’ loyalty to them. “It’s much easier to be loyal to someone you trust and feel like is on your side,” says Nathanael Fast of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Researchers led by Tanja Schwarzmüller of the Technical University of Munich wanted to tackle that long-standing conundrum demonstrated in earlier studies — anger in management linked to perception of power, versus sadness as an unlikely link to positive outcomes, including better relationships with followers, who view sad leaders as more effective.

Schwarzmüller’s team wondered whether the types of power that anger and sadness convey matter more for long-term outcomes than how much power they convey. Studies have found that angry leaders have high levels of so-called position power, which includes legitimate, or formally instated, power; power to reward followers; and coercive power, or the power to punish followers. Meanwhile, people judge sad leaders as holding high referent power, or the power to make followers feel accepted and valued.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers randomly assigned 116 university students a video to watch of a business leader giving a speech expressing either anger (complete with shouting and clenched fists) or sadness (delivered in a morose tone with arms hanging loosely at the sides) over a company’s poor financial year. The students then completed a survey designed to measure how much of each type of power the leader possessed. Sure enough, the students viewed angry leaders as having higher levels of position power than sad leaders — but lower levels of referent power.

If followers mess up, think less Stalin, and more Princess Di.

But what does that mean for leadership outcomes? To find out, Schwarzmüller and colleagues repeated the experiment with about 130 working adults, but gave them an additional survey to measure their loyalty and deviance, as well as how effective they perceived the leader to be — asking them to rate how strongly they agreed with such statements as “I would act rudely toward my leader,” and “This person is successful in his/her company.” Again, participants ascribed higher levels of position power to angry leaders than to sad ones, who had higher levels of referent power. They also felt more loyal to sad leaders and were less likely to sabotage them.

The researchers noted the same trends when they repeated the experiment with screenshots and a transcript of the speech instead of video footage (to remove traces of emotions other than anger or sadness). They also saw similar results whether the leaders were men or women, although it’s possible that styling the latter in a more overtly feminine way might have produced even more dramatic effects on leadership outcomes.

The study “acknowledges that there are different sources of power and that our behavior as leaders can simultaneously enhance one source of power while detracting from another,” says Fast, who wasn’t part of the study. While people might view angry leaders as more powerful overall, “their resulting power seems to rest upon a weak foundation,” the study authors wrote.

To be sure, “there are pros and cons to each type [of power],” Fast says. “You want to use the tools according to what your goals are in a particular situation.” For instance, the power to punish — enhanced by anger — might inspire the urgency needed in an emergency. Indeed, the researchers still need to explore how anger and sadness play out in situations beyond corporate scenarios.

So what does all this mean for managers? “If followers mess up on an important project, it might be good to consider saying, ‘I’m sad this happened,’ instead of ‘I’m angry this happened,’ ” says Schwarzmüller. Think less Stalin, and more Martin Luther King Jr. or Princess Diana. Consider employees’ individual needs and express gratitude for their work, Schwarzmüller suggests. The referent power conveyed by sadness “motivates people to work for you toward shared goals,” she says, “and because they like you” — not simply out of obligation.

So, rather than bite the new hire’s head off, try taking a deep breath and channeling your inner Gandhi instead.

This editorial article was originally created by OZY Media and published on OZY.com prior to, and independently of its inclusion in this JPMorgan Chase & Co. sponsored series. OZY Media claims the full rights and responsibilities of this article.