Anxious leaders can influence their followers’ anxiety even when communicating online, study finds

With social media being such an important form of communication, it is often a way for employers and employees to connect with each other. A study published in PLOS A reveals that organizational leaders’ tweets can influence their employees’ anxiety and that this effect is greater since the rise of COVID-19.

Humans are a social species and we can be greatly influenced by the moods and behaviors of others. Previous research has shown that leaders can influence the emotions of their subordinates both unconsciously and deliberately. Despite this knowledge, this relationship has never been tested with respect to computer-mediated communication. This study aims to fill this gap by using Twitter.

“When we interact and communicate with others, we not only transfer information, but also feelings and emotions,” said study author Jon Gruda, assistant professor at Maynooth University School of Business. “We know that this emotional contagion is likely to happen from leaders to followers because leaders hold a lot of power, authority and access to scarce resources.”

“It is therefore logical to assume that leaders influence the anxiety of their followers even when communicating online via social media. We also expected this effect to be stronger during the COVID-19 crisis, with more and more communications moving online due to socializing restrictions. Our study is the first to test this empirically.

Gruda and his colleagues used a sample of 197 executives and 958 followers from 79 companies. Organizations had to have at least 10 employees to be counted in this study. Leader positions were considered CEO, CFO, etc., with everything else classified as a follower. The tweets were extracted and scored by US human raters on a state-level anxiety scale. After that, the researchers annotated the data with an algorithm to predict anxiety. Each tweet was assigned an anxiety score from 1 to 4.

The results showed that, consistent with previous research, leader state anxiety predicted follower state anxiety. Trait- and state-related anxiety in leaders was linked to increased follower anxiety over computer-mediated communication. Additionally, leaders with more state and trait anxiety overall were less likely to alarm their followers with increased anxiety due to COVID-19, while leaders who don’t normally tend to being very anxious had subscribers who were more likely to become anxious when faced with an increase in their leader’s anxiety. This could be because followers accustomed to an anxious leader may place less value on their signals and look for them elsewhere.

“We find that leaders can influence their followers’ anxiety even when communicating online, but only in the case of less anxious leaders,” Gruda told PsyPost. “If you – as a leader – are anxious in general, it can be quite misleading for your followers as they might not recognize the seriousness of a crisis in time.”

“For less anxious leaders, however, it’s crucial to be aware that your thoughts, even in the form of social media posts, can strongly influence your followers’ anxiety. Even if you think no one is reading your posts, what you post is powerful. Especially in a crisis environment, when followers are even more likely to look to their leaders for guidance and direction.

This study has taken important steps in understanding the influence of the leader on the anxiety of its followers when it comes to social media as a communication platform, but it has some limitations. First, social media posts don’t always accurately reflect mood or personality. Additionally, it’s unclear how subscriber anxiety might impact their executives.

“It stands to reason that followers – at least those who are close to or report directly to their leaders – also have power to influence their leaders, even when communicating online. We are currently examining this relationship empirically. as well, and again we expect a crisis context to reinforce this influence effect,” Gruda said.

“Given the new work rules, we expect virtual communication between leaders and followers to become the norm,” the researcher added. “This means that the influence ‘game’ will be heavily transferred to the screen and into the virtual world. This opens up new avenues of research and raises questions about the understanding and practice of leadership. For example, can communication platforms replace face-to-face communications between leadership agents? These questions and many more are waiting to be explored.

The study, “Don’t Tweet Me Badly: Contagion of Anxiety Between Leaders and Followers in Computer-Mediated Communication During COVID-19“, was written by Dritjon Gruda, Adegboyega Ojo and Alexandros Psychogios.

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