In the business world, the assumption exists that most employees want their leaders to empower them and focus largely on encouragement. However, many of the leaders that have become infamous in the past decades have taken a much more punitive and negative approach to leadership.
One researcher recognized this disconnect and began investigating the underlying cause. Her research shows that employees tend to think that they want positive leaders, yet they instinctively put more power into the hands of negative individuals. The research builds on investigations of human social hierarchies and power dynamics and shows that criticism and negative interactions may signal power on a subliminal level.
Looking at the Perceived Power of Negative Personalities
At the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, professor Eileen Y. Chou conducted 11 controlled studies to investigate the link between naysaying and perceptions of power. One of the most illustrative studies took pairs of quotes from US presidential candidates, presented without context or name. Within the pairs, one quote expressed a positive sentiment about the country’s future, while the other was more pessimistic.
Respondents read the quotes and were asked to rate the power and potential efficacy of each candidate and name who they would vote for based on the quote alone. In the study, it became very clear that people perceived the candidates with the negative remarks as more powerful, more likely to lead effectively, and worthier of a vote. Other studies looked at this phenomenon in other contexts, from social commentary to art reviews, and found similar results.
Interestingly, though participants in these studies perceived the naysayers as less likable than optimists and no more competent than optimists or more neutral people, they nonetheless fully endorsed them as leaders, even if they themselves would be subject to the negative leadership.
The Psychological Motivation Behind the Phenomenon
While it is difficult to say why individuals associate negativity with leadership and power, Dr. Chou believes that a psychological explanation is likely. When people criticize or refute another’s opinion, they assert their own agency and thus demonstrate their power, which in turn gives the perception that they are free from social constraints and not beholden to the resources of someone else. Data from the 11 studies seems to support the idea that perceived agency has a close connection to perceived power. In some of the studies, people were assigned the role of naysayer, cheerleader, or neutral party. The naysayers reported feeling more powerful despite not having any strong sense of competence to support that position.
In the context of business leadership, these findings mean that leaders may embrace critical rhetoric because it makes them feel more powerful and that, moreover, employees will, as a result, think of them as more powerful. However, that does not tell the whole story from the perspective of human psychology. Perceptions of power change over time, and constant negativity may cause employees to reevaluate their acceptance of it. Furthermore, indiscriminate negativity can make people seem disgruntled and irrational, which are not exactly qualities that employees want in their leaders.
Recognizing Personal Signs of Negativity in Leadership
Since business leaders may have a tendency to adopt a negative role as they try to assert power (which can ultimately lead to their downfall), it is important that individuals understand the signs of negative leadership and address them. For example, negative leaders often create division at a company by pitting different employees or departments against each other. While this can drive work in the short term, it can lead to compromised ethics and feelings of favoritism. In addition, negative leaders often rely heavily on fear tactics as they try to get their teams to meet goals. For example, they may use threats of being fired or holding back promotions and raises. Fear is not an effective way to motivate, and this approach may lead to high turnover rates at the company.
Negative bosses also often tend to be somewhat invisible in the workplace. While these individuals show up to give directions and check in on projects, they do not actually provide any sort of support or ask how employees themselves are doing. In this situation, employees will struggle to trust their leaders, and in turn, they will not likely reach their full potential without their leader’s support.
In kind, business leaders should become suspicious of the impression they are making when their employees do not speak up or ask questions. If employees do not feel comfortable making suggestions or coming to their leader with problems, this is a sign of distrust. Leaders can mitigate this by engaging their employees and asking open-ended questions.