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April 13, 2022

Bartels Presents on Harnessing the Power of Emotions

Research Highlights How to Better Lead
Bartels Presents on Harnessing the Power of Emotions
Amy Bartels, assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, researches how emotions can be a tool used to enhance leadership ability and performance. She recently presented on the topic at the sold-out 2022 Women Lead conference in March.

As soon as a leader walks through the doors of the office, the tone for the whole day and team can be set based on which emotions the manager displays. Amy Bartels, assistant professor of management, ’07 & ’10, recently presented on research about why this might happen and how leaders can harness the power of their emotions at the 2022 Women Lead conference hosted by the College of Business and College of Law. 

“In my research, my co-authors and I wanted to look at leaders and their daily emotions. I go over the power of detrimental and beneficial emotions and talk about how to use each to enhance leadership ability and performance. Emotions are powerful and can be another tool in your toolbox to supplement everything else you’ve learned about being a leader,” she said.

With the presentation based around her and her co-authors’ research paper, “With a Frown or a Smile: How Leader Affective States Spark the Leader-Follow Reciprocal Exchange Process,” published in Personnel Psychology, Bartels walked through the powerful role emotions play in the dynamic of the leadership-follower relationship through daily interactions. Displays of emotion from a leader can ripple throughout an organization and influence follower performance, the relationship between a leader and follower, and the leader’s behavior.

“Perhaps you get cut off driving into work. You might feel really angry and walk into the office, and it probably shows all over your face. You see one of your team members, and they see that anger and frustration. What we found in our research is that’s going to affect their day. Even though it has nothing to do with them, they might feel angry and frustrated. It can affect not only your relationship with them, but also your ability to be a leader and their performance at work that day,” she explained.

When it comes to showing emotions at work, especially in leadership positions, people often feel that they either have to constantly be stoic or cheerful and exude happiness in the office. But, as Bartels notes, it’s natural to sometimes feel upset or discouraged at work and how people deal with these negative or detrimental emotions can have lasting effects on you and those around you.  

“When we talk about dealing with detrimental emotions, there’s really two options that people tend to go to. The first one is they ignore it and put on a happy face — what we call ‘surface acting’ — and essentially you are trying to put whatever feeling you think is appropriate for the situation on your face, regardless of whether you feel it. People can usually tell whether you’re being authentic or not, and it can harm relationships,” Bartels said. “The other option people often do is internalize negative emotions. What happens is you often get hooked by these negative emotions, you ruminate about it for a long time, and it starts to spill into other areas of your life.”

However, with emotional agility, leaders can better navigate negative emotions and strategically shift and minimize them without harming an individual’s well-being.

“Emotional agility is strategically taking some of these detrimental thoughts and using them in a way that they can be powerful. It allows you to move forward and strategically use that negative emotion to help yourself figure out what leadership behaviors you can do that align with your values,” she said.

When dealing with negative emotions, Bartels recommends first trying to recognize patterns about what is triggering those negative emotions and then separating the emotion from the triggering thoughts. Once done, try to accept the emotion and then act accordingly with your own personal values in mind.

Just as leaders can easily influence others with negative emotions, people can also spread positive emotions. Bartels stated how this is possible through something called emotional culture, effectively maximizing positive emotions to spread throughout your surroundings.

“One of the coolest parts about emotions is how contagious they are. Think of it like when you toss a pebble into a pond, and you can see those ripples go everywhere. You can see that with happiness at work, too,” Bartels explained.

One of the ways to strengthen emotions in the workplace is through smaller, daily interactions with coworkers, called micro moments, where leaders can recognize pockets of positive emotion and create an opportunity to permeate a culture of joy. Leaders can also lean on language to embrace more positive emotions, or even use leadership itself to trickle emotions down or engagement activities, like social events.

Bartels noted how emotions are powerful tools that everyone in an organization can use. She encourages those not in formal leadership roles to start with people they are closest with at work and influence them in a positive manner.

“I rarely study people who are in formal leadership positions in any of my research. Instead, I look at what we call informal leadership, and that’s what anyone can do regardless of their position. Informal leadership is all about developing influence and a lot of the ways you do that is through relationships. You can influence others by developing relationships because leadership is all about influence and power. It’s not about a position, but your ability to influence others,” she said.

To read the research paper in Personnel Psychology, visit: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/peps.12445.

To learn more about the Department of Management, visit: https://business.unl.edu/management.