Emotional communication in the workplace

Facial behavior is not only a source of emotional information for people who perceive it but it is also an important tool in the regulation of social interactions. For example, different leadership styles are implemented in everyday interactions by means of a variety of facial displays and different expectations exist as to which gender (male or female) should display which expression, depending on workplace status. Within this framework, we (Patrick Stewart, University of Arkansas), Marc Méhu (Webster Vienna PU), and Frank Salter (Social Technology Ltd.) investigated how facial displays of competitive and affiliative leadership styles are perceived in relation to gender and status. We found a tendency for facial displays of supervisors to be more accurately identified than facial displays of subordinates. In addition, expressions of anger tended to be more accurately identified when displayed by male than by female supervisors. Gender differences appeared to be more pronounced when the person who expressed the emotion was presented as a subordinate individual. Namely, fear was more easily identified in men than in women but disgust was more accurately recognized in women than in men. Finally, sadness expressions were more readily identified in women, regardless of their workplace status.

We interpret these results in the framework of evolutionary theory which postulates that the perception of facial expression follows patterns of relationships that are expected to foster men and women’s adjustment to the social world. For instance, hierarchy and competition are salient dimensions of men’s relationships, hence displays of anger and fear are relatively important in this context. On the other hand, as individuals being more concerned with group stability, women’s need for social support (that can be reflected in expressions of sadness) and their concern with a healthy social environment (disgust expressions may have a role in an individual’s ostracism) have to be more clearly communicated. The absence of gender difference in the communication of happiness-reassurance displays suggests that both sexes use these displays equally well to lead groups successfully.

Professional organizations can only be successful in the long term when the stress generated by competitive interactions is alleviated by more positive and constructive relationships with colleagues. The increased interest about the function of emotions in the workplace can be met by targeted research on how emotions are expressed and perceived in professional environments. Moreover, understanding the sex differences in communicative behavior is essential in settings where men and women increasingly work side by side and manage each other. The interpersonal consequences of emotional communication for the organization of work relationships is an important avenue to explore in a world where optimization of work-life balance is becoming more of a concern for public health and for society in general. Research at Webster Vienna PU is on the right track to address these issues.

Original article:

Stewart, P. A., Mehu, M., & Salter, F. K. (2015). Sex and leadership: Interpreting competitive and affiliative facial displayes based on workplace status. International Public Management Journal, 18(2), 190-208. DOI: 10.1080/10967494.2014.996626