People in groups and crowds demonstrate collective affect, according to Gustave Le Bon, who asserted that individuals in these contexts collectively act with “impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments…” even if these are not their usual individual behaviors.
Well before the rise of charismatic leader Adolph Hitler, Le Bon claimed that “…an individual immersed for some length of time in a crowd soon finds himself…. in a special state, which much resembles the state of fascination in which the hypnotized individual finds himself in the hands of the hypnotizer.”
One way to evaluate individual and collective affect is through facial expressions because they provide information about how others understand people and events.
As a result, these non-verbal cues enable people to tailor responses to individuals and groups they encounter.
Tailoring interaction style based on observing others is a key element of Emotional Intelligence, described by Yale’s Peter Salovey and Daisy Grewal as accurately perceiving others’ emotional states and effectively responding with emotionally-charged interpersonal situations.
This is also an essential leadership skill because it enables awareness of sentiments that may be out of others’ awareness or that they may consciously try to suppress to align with prevailing organizational cultures — particularly those that do not encourage emotional awareness and expression.
Consequently, accurate perception of others’ emotions is related to effectively managing interpersonal relationships according to University of California, Berkeley’s Hillary Elfenbein and to subordinates’ ratings of managers as transformational leaders in research by Depaul University’s Robert S. Rubin, David C. Munz of Saint Louis University and Cleveland State University’s William H. Bommer.
However, accurate perception of group sentiment is difficult because many people narrow attention to a few individuals and to focus in detail on them, leading to perceptual bias of collective “tunnel vision.”
As a result, much information in social context, including the group’s prevailing emotional tone, may be filtered out, noted University of Alberta’s Takahiko Masuda, Phoebe C. Ellsworth of University of Michigan, Wake Forest University’s Batja Mesquita, Janxin Leu of University of Washington, Hokkaido University’s Shigehito Tanida, and Ellen Van de Veerdonk of University of Amsterdam.
Executives and leaders must decode and attend to collective emotions because they often cannot develop individual relationships with each of their many stakeholders and when addressing group emotions including:
- Employees’ collective anxiety about corporate restructuring, mergers, divestitures, and reductions in force,
- Consumers’ collective anger,
- Board of Directors members’ lack of support.
Positive collective emotions tend to be over-estimated, and linked to greater customer service and lower absenteeism, reported Texas A & M’s Jennifer George.
In contrast, negative collective emotions like envy are easily under-estimated, and associated with lower group performance and satisfaction by reducing group potency and cohesion in research by University of Kentucky’s Michelle Duffy and Jason Shaw.
A leader’s ability to respond effectively to patterns of shared emotions during strategic organizational change and other emotionally turbulent organizational processes depends on the leader’s ability to widen the “emotional aperture.”
Like a camera’s aperture adjustment for increased depth of field, emotional aperture refers to ability to recognize the mix of positive and negative emotional experiences in a team, workgroup or business unit.
This “setting change” can bring into focus both nearby individuals and more distantly scattered groups of people.
Likewise, adjusting the emotional aperture involves moving an information-processing focus from individual emotional experiences to a group’s collective emotional composition.
Although ability to recognize individual emotional expression has been measured by instruments like the Brief Affect Recognition Test, this tool doesn’t evaluate perception and recognition of collective affect.
To address this limitation, University of Michigan’s Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and Caroline A. Bartel of University of Texas collaborating with Vanderbilt University’s Laura Rees and Quy Huy of INSEAD developed an Emotional Aperture Measure (EAM).
EAM analyzes a person’s ability to accurately perceive a group’s collective emotions in short video clips of employee groups before and after an organizational event.
Next, participants estimate the proportion of rapid individual positive and negative reactions among group members.
Feedback from this instrument can increase perceiver accuracy through heightened awareness.
Sanchez-Burks contacted direct reports of a global sample of high-ranking managers and requested online evaluations of the manager’s leadership performance.
Three studies demonstrated that collective affect recognition requires a distinct information processing style, differing from perceiving individual emotion.
Managers’ EAM performance was significantly correlated with direct reports’ perception of managers’ “transformational leadership” behaviors, suggesting that this ability to accurately perceive group emotion can significantly influence stakeholder impressions and opinions.
People can open their emotional aperture through attention to collective emotions, and may influence prevailing negative group affect by asking the positive minority to share optimistic sentiments with the skeptical majority.
This dialog can increase trust and shared perspectives that may move negative sentiment to become more positive.
Leaders who increase the range of their “emotional aperture” can increase followers’ alignment with strategic direction to increase the likelihood to effective execution and change impact.
Try the Emotional Aperture Measure to see your results.
-*How do you read the “emotional tone” of a group?
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Dr. Hendrie Weisinger wrote:
Here is what I think the best reference on Emotional Contagion. Elaine Hatfield is now at Univeristy of Hawaii.
Her work explains the mechanism -facial expressions, sounds, body gestures that spread emotions form one person to another. She is not a “promoter” so she never got the “pop” recognition that she deserves. Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J., & Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional contagion.
Kathryn Welds responded:
Thanks so much, Dr. Weisinger, for the reference to Hatfield, Cacioppo & Rapson’s book on Emotional Contagion
Hatfield’s work is mentioned in an earlier blog post, referring to related research:
“Emotional Contagion” in the Workplace through Social Observation, Social Media –