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The ‘awestruck effect’

Charismatic leaders should be aware they cause followers to suppress emotions, which can harm companies over the long term, says new study.

Awestruck

Study is co-authored by Jochen Menges, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School and Professor of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany.

Beware the “awestruck effect” of too-charismatic leaders in the workplace.

While charismatic leaders may stir the heart, they cause followers to suppress emotions and this can harm companies through increased strain, lower job satisfaction and reduced information exchange among employees, according to a new academic study.

“Charismatic leaders should be aware of their emotionally suppressive effect on followers,” says the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, noting the potentially “perilous consequences” of emotion suppression. “Although putting followers in awe may reinforce the leaders’ standing in the group, awestruck followers are unlikely to benefit the group in the long-term.”

The study also finds that leaders who show individual consideration tend to encourage followers’ emotional expression; while this may circumvent the negative implications of emotion suppression, at “rampant” levels such expressiveness can be detrimental because it violates workplace norms and can thus cause conflict and harm employee coordination.

The study was conducted by Jochen Menges, who is on the faculty of both WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management in Germany and University of Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK; Martin Kilduff of University College London; Sarah Kern of WHU – Otto Beisheim; and Heike Bruch of University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

The study – entitled “The awestruck effect: followers suppress emotion expression in response to charismatic but not individually considerate leadership” – is based on responses to various leadership scenarios by several hundred research participants at universities and companies in Germany and Switzerland.

Although previous studies had looked at how charismatic leaders influence followers’ emotional experience, the new study focuses instead on how followers regulate their emotional expressiveness in response to charismatic leaders – and does so by examining separately the effect of both a leader’s charisma and individualised consideration on followers.

“Charismatic leaders stir the hearts of their followers and entice them with mesmerising messages, and so followers hail their leader,” said the study. “But followers, in their admiration of the leader, are also likely to become awestruck – overwhelmed with emotion that they are too intimidated to express.”

Such inhibition of expressiveness can deploy mental resources and thus impair the cognitive processing capacity of followers – which may make them less able to evaluate the actual messages of charismatic leaders, and therefore make them “more likely to endorse such leaders with little scrutiny.”

If there is such an impairment of cognitive functioning, “then charismatic leadership may carry costs for followers that have thus far been overlooked,” the study says. “Charismatic leadership may have a dark side for followers irrespective of whether leaders’ goals are moral or immoral.”

“Given the perilous consequences of emotion suppression, charismatic leaders need to find ways to release followers’ emotions, perhaps by temporarily reducing their own status at times or by offering individualised consideration,” the study concludes.

So how can followers of charismatic leaders defend themselves against such consequences? One potential route, the study says, is for followers to “mentally” reduce the status of charismatic leaders – because “it is not uncommon for people to remind themselves that a leader they admire is only human.”