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Faking emotions can help bad bosses get ahead

Published: 06-06-2024

People with psychopathic tendencies have impaired empathy and remorse, lie and manipulate, and have bold, egotistical traits. Yet they can sometimes successfully climb the ladder to leadership positions. One reason for this might be that such leaders can “hide behind a mask of sanity,” skillfully managing how they express emotions to shape others’ perceptions positively. In our study, involving 306 teams, we explored how leaders' primary psychopathy and their emotion regulation strategies influence followers’ views of the leader's authenticity and trustworthiness. We discovered that leaders with strong psychopathic traits benefit more from surface acting—feigning emotions rather than truly feeling them—to build follower trust. We also found that for leaders with higher levels of primary psychopathy deep acting - truly experiencing the emotions they display- is a less fruitful strategy because they lack the necessary empathic concern. Displaying naturally felt emotions is also positively linked to follower trust. Overall, our findings suggest that leaders with psychopathic characteristics can manipulate how subordinates perceive them through strategic emotional displays. By carefully controlling their emotional expressions via surface acting, these leaders can exploit their followers’ perceptions to maintain power and control.

You can read this article, written by Barbara Wisse, Ed Sleebos, and Anita Keller here:
Wisse, B., Sleebos, E., & Keller, A. C. (2024). The mask of sanity? Leader primary psychopathy and the effects of leader emotion regulation strategies on followers. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 31(2), 146-165. https://doi.org/10.1177/15480518241247113