People in any group naturally pay more attention to and place more significance on what the most powerful person in that group says and does. Higher social status generally comes with an attention deficiency for those beneath them. This attention gap amplifies the force of whatever emotional message the leader may be sending, making her emotions particularly contagious.
As I heard one executive say rather ruefully, “When my mind is full of anger, other people catch it like the flu.” In this sense, leadership boils down to a series of social exchanges in which the leader can drive the other person’s emotions into a better or worse state.
Displeasure Isn’t the Answer
Many effective leaders sense that, like compliments, well-titrated doses of irritation can energize. The measure of how well-calibrated a message of displeasure might be is performance. Does it move people toward peak performance or plummet them past the tipping point to where distress corrodes performance?
While a boss’s artfully couched displeasure can be an effective goad, fuming is self-defeating as a leadership tactic. When leaders habitually use displays of bad moods to motivate, more work may seem to get done – but it will not necessarily be better work. Inefficiency becomes the norm, and the team’s panicked efforts to please their manager lead to poor decisions and ineffective strategies.
Relentlessly foul moods corrode the emotional climate, sabotaging the brain’s ability to work at its best. Biologically, the stew of stress hormones secreted when a person is upset takes hours to become reabsorbed in the body and fade away. That’s why a sour relationship with a boss can leave a person a captive of that distress, with a mind preoccupied and a body unable to calm itself.
Empathize and Energize
There are other powerful reasons for leaders to be mindful of what they say to employees. For example, people recall negative interactions with a boss with more intensity, in more detail, and more often than they do positive ones. The ease with which demotivation can spread from a boss makes it all the more imperative for him to act in ways that make the emotions left behind uplifting ones.
Callousness from a boss not only heightens the risk of losing good people, it torpedoes cognitive efficiency. A socially intelligent leader helps people contain and recover from their emotional distress. In a positive interaction, the team member feels a socially intelligent leader’s attention and empathy, support, and positivity. In negative interactions, he feels isolated and threatened. If only from a business perspective, a leader would do well to react with empathy rather than indifference – and to act on it.
To learn more about superlative workplace communication and conflict resolution, register for the American Management Association course Leading with Emotional Intelligence.
Additional resources to develop emotionally intelligent management skills:
Resonant Leadership: Inspiring Others Through Emotional Intelligence
Leadership: A Master Class
What Makes a Leader: Why Emotional Intelligence Matters
Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence
Effective management requires truly motivating your team. Enhance your management skills with these AMA resources and seminars.