Muting Emotions

Authoritarian leaders suppress employees’ emotional expression—and performance suffers

A CEO’s leadership style can strongly influence the company’s culture.

When an organization is led by an authoritarian leader, employees tend to suppress their emotions—good or bad.

A recently published paper by Xiao-Ping Chen of the University of Washington Foster School of Business looks at the emotional impact this type of leadership can have on employees.

“Typically, people study how leadership impacts employees’ behavior or job attitudes. We take this approach to see how authoritarian leadership will impact how people can or cannot show their emotions,” says Chen, a professor of management and the Philip M. Condit Endowed Chair in Business Administration at Foster.

It turns out, when people cannot express their emotions at work, it negatively impacts their individual and team performance.

Suppressing performance

An authoritative leader is defined in the study as someone with “an ambient, demanding and controlling leadership style.” This is one of the three components of paternalistic leadership. The other two are benevolence and moral character.  

“In this particular study,” Chen says, “we took that one component—authority—and tried to find out, without the other two, what’s going to happen emotionally to employees.”

Xiao-Ping Chen portrait
Xiao-Ping Chen

She and her co-authors—Jack Ting-Ju Chiang and Zheng Wang of Peking University, Haiyang Liu of the London School of Economics, and Satoshi Akutsu of Hitotsubashi University—surveyed more than 250 leaders and 750 employees in three large public Japanese organizations. Chen says they picked companies in Japan, where emotional neutrality is a cultural norm. Even in that environment, the results showed that authoritarian leadership leads to a climate of emotional suppression.

And, most significantly, the resulting emotional suppression negatively impacts employee performance.

Emotional exhaustion

“Because the leader is trying to show their authority, employees feel like they better not show any emotions because the leader might punish them,” explains Chen.

And it’s not just emotions like anger or fear. In some companies, Chen says celebrating or showing happy emotions can be met with negative reactions as well.

“A lot of times authoritarian leaders have such high standards, and what you did isn’t good enough, so they don’t feel you should be celebrating,” she says.

This means employees have to monitor all of their emotions. “Needing to pay attention to and controlling your emotions takes a lot of mental resources. We found this kind of climate leads to the work teams eventually getting emotionally exhausted,” says Chen. “That leaves little energy to really do their work well, negatively affecting the overall team performance.”

Appropriate authority

Leadership requires some degree of authority. Chen explains that a good paternalistic leader is one that has a balance of all three components: authority, benevolence and moral character.

“Ideally, you have a leader who shows authority and, at the same time, is taking care of the employees and has high moral standards,” she says. “People respect them, and that works pretty well.”

When it comes to companies in the United States, leaders tend to be more democratic in general. But authoritarian leadership styles still exist. Chen says a good leader is one who knows when to be decisive and when to seek input from employees.

“I think the successful and effective recipe is a combination of both,” she explains. “Before making a decision, go out and seek input and really listen to people. Then use your own intelligent thinking and judgment and make the best decision. After the decision is made, you need to show authority to make sure that the decision is 100-percent implemented.”

Express yourself

To alleviate emotional exhaustion for employees, Chen advises leaders to reduce their authoritarian behaviors in daily interactions with employees and help their employees find appropriate ways to express or alleviate their emotions.

Whether it’s at a happy hour after work or in a safe space within the organization, “you need a place to release those emotions,” Chen says. “If leaders create these opportunities for people to release their emotions, then the company’s whole atmosphere will be healthier.”

We have emotions but can’t show them! Authoritarian leadership, emotional suppression climate, and team performance” is published in the July 2021 issue of the journal Human Relations.

Kristin Anderson Associate Director of Stakeholder Communications & Relations Foster School

Kristin Anderson is the associate director of stakeholder communications & relations at Foster. After graduating from Boston University, she worked in broadcast news in Texas, Alaska and Seattle before joining the Foster School. Kristin enjoys running, camping, traveling and catching a movie at SIFF.