Based on Research By Juan M. Madera and D. Brent Smith

The Outside Perception Of Leaders Is Influenced By The Emotions They Display.

  • In a corporate crisis such as product recall, outside perception of leaders is strongly shaped by the emotions they display.
  • Considerable research has explored the role of leaders’ emotions in times of crisis. There is less research on the role of displaying specific emotions at such times.
  • New research demonstrates that during a crisis, outsiders view a leader who voices both anger and sadness, or even sadness alone, as more effective than a leader who shows only anger.

There is a wide range of executive responses to crisis. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal/Japan described a string of seppuku cases among Japanese executives after failures or scandals. In the West, of course, such steps are extreme. Yet even in the U.S., the Internet and other sources of public information make stony silence obsolete as a crisis tool. 

So how should a boss strike the balance? In a recent study, Professor Brent Smith, senior associate dean of Executive Education at Rice Business, and his colleagues sounded the emotional depths of U.S. leaders’ responses during crisis. What they found was that even in the digital age, the public responds best to leaders who act like humans.

Much research, the team noted, has explored how emotions influence business leaders during a crisis. Less attention, however, has gone toward the specific emotions leaders show at such times, and how those emotions strike the public.

Whether the crisis is external, such as a terrorist attack, or internal, like a recall or scandal, is an important factor, Smith and his colleagues knew. They designed their study to analyze an internal crisis: a corporate product recall. Aiming to understand the role of anger and sadness during such an event, the researchers then asked 322 employees at different companies for reactions to a written account about an executive in a troubled firm. The research subjects were an average of 34 years old and had spent an average of 14 years in the workplace. Told they were joining a study about “knowledge of recent headlines in the news,” each was given a newspaper story describing a product recall, then asked questions about the events and leaders portrayed in the story.

Existing literature in organizational psychology, the researchers noted, holds that a leader who shows anger during a crisis conveys competence, strength and intelligence. A leader who expresses sadness in the same situation conveys remorse, sympathy, warmth and affiliation. Based on this research, Smith’s team proposed that a leader who expressed both sadness and anger in a failed-product crisis would be evaluated more favorably than a leader who voiced either anger or sadness alone.

The newspaper experiment confirmed their theory. Most subjects indeed factored the leader’s public display of emotion into their assessments of her or him. In addition, the subjects reacted more favorably to leaders who publicly voiced both anger and sadness, or even sadness alone. A leader who showed anger alone, the subjects said, seemed less effective.

Falling literally on the sword will never be a widespread corporate option in this country. But as Smith and his colleagues show, the traditional option of stonewalling may no longer serve companies either. At least in the case of a product recall, a leader who shows a human range of emotions, or simply the “soft” emotion of sorrow, paradoxically comes off as more powerful.

D. Brent Smith is senior associate dean of Executive Education and associate professor of management and psychology at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Madera, J. M., & Smith, D. B. (2009). The effects of leader negative emotions on evaluations of leadership in a crisis situation: the role of anger and sadness. The Leadership Quarterly, 20(2), 103–114.