Charismatic managers inspire but also annoy workers to bad results

Published: July 24 2008

Category:Business, Research

Video | Audio interview with Amir Erez

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Happiness may be contagious in the workplace, but enthusiasm is annoying, especially if it involves bosses who wave their hands and talk too loudly.

So says a study that concludes that while charismatic managers can be effective, their overexuberance can turn off and demoralize employees.

“Clearly, charismatic leaders make people happy and that explains why people are so attracted to them, but there is a little understood dark side to charisma,” said , a professor who led the research, which is published in the latest edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

In their enthusiasm, charismatic leaders may talk too loudly and wave their hands excessively, which unnecessarily arouses employees and puts them in a bad mood, Erez said.

“Usually we think of being aroused as indicating the need to run from some sort of danger, like being prepared for fight or flight, which, when you think about it, is not a particularly positive feeling to experience,” he said. Can he determine where the line is crossed?

The results have important implications in today’s workplace where employees are more likely to work in teams and closely feel the effects of their co-workers’ moods, Erez said. In addition, emotions of nervousness and unhappiness likely to result from an intense manager add to pressures people already face in today’s fast-paced office environment, he said.

In separate samples of college students and firefighters, Erez and his team found that the good moods of charismatic managers are contagious, making their employees happy.

The findings depart from related studies, which show that charismatic leaders inspire their followers by increasing people’s self-esteem, Erez said.

“While other research finds that charismatic leaders make people feel good about themselves, we found they make people feel good period, which I’m sure explains their attraction,” he said.

Having such a positive effect is a definite advantage in the workplace because studies have shown that people who are in a good mood are more motivated, show greater creativity, perform better on a variety of tasks and cooperate more fully with their co-workers, he said.

In the first sample, 386 students ranging in age from 17 to 44, participated in a team exercise where they imagined they were lost in the wilderness and had to make decisions about survival methods. The mood of the participants was measured before and after the team exercise. Participants then were asked to rate the effectiveness and charisma of their group leader. The leaders were videotaped and evaluated by a second group of 172 participants both for positive expressive behavior and their ability to arouse. The second sample involved a survey of 264 firefighters from a major southeastern metropolitan fire department who lived and worked together.

The results of both studies found that compared with noncharismatic leaders, charismatic leaders exhibited more positive gestures such as smiling and laughing but also more aroused behaviors, such as talking with hands and being loud. While the leaders’ positive expressions raised followers’ positive moods, the aroused behaviors had a negative effect, he said.

“The conventional wisdom is that being highly expressive is a good leadership practice, but this study raises doubts about whether the ability to arouse people is constructive in the workplace,” Erez said. “While it’s clear that charismatic leaders induce good moods, they could have an even greater positive influence by learning to control over-the-top behavior.”

Charismatic leaders’ personality appeal is not limited to the workplace but applies to politics as well, Erez said. In presidential races, there is strong evidence that charismatic candidates are more likely to be elected than their less magnetic counterparts, he said.

“We have evidence to show that people tend to mimic the facial expressions of charismatic leaders and in turn they catch the mood of the leaders,” he said. “For example, research has shown that whether they were Republicans or Democrats, people would mimic President Ronald Reagan’s facial expressions by smiling when he smiled.”

If the leader then exhibits many positive expressions and as a result puts followers in a positive mood, they will tend to like the person more, he said.

The same might also be true of Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential race, Erez said. “Obama smiles a lot and has a very attractive smile,” he said. ‘”That could explain part of why people respond so positively to him and are so enthusiastic when they are around him — he just puts them in a good mood and who wouldn’t like to be happy?”


Cathy Keen,, 352-392-0186
Amir Erez,, 352-273-0339

Category:Business, Research