You come into work with a smile on your face. As you make your way to your office, you give each employee a wave and a cheerful greeting. You’ve even been known to whistle a happy tune on occasion.
And why not? You love your job and feel like you have a great leadership style. There’s no reason for you not to be happy. Right?
Except it might cause people to think less of you.
Research from the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania found that compared to moderately happy people, very happy people are viewed as more naïve. This perception leads people to think such individuals shelter themselves from negative information and are therefore easier to take advantage of.
But that doesn’t mean you should trade in your happiness to be taken seriously as a leader. You just need to know how to balance your naturally cheery personality with the right leadership style.
The Disadvantage of Happiness
“If you’re trying to exploit somebody, you’re likely to go after the really happy person,” said one of the aforementioned study’s authors, Maurice Schweitzer, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “That’s who we think is going to be the most gullible person, that’s who we’re going to try to get on the hook for something else.”
Even if you are a strong leader, being happy means you’ll be perceived as someone who can be walked all over. This was further supported by a 2016 study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, which looked at the implications of emotions expressed by leaders.
The research compared the effectiveness of leaders who were perceived as angry versus those who showed more vulnerable emotions, such as sadness. Understandably, heated leaders were viewed as more assertive and legitimate leaders. This gave them a greater air of authority and a leadership style defined by punishment and reward. In short, employees saw these leaders as less of a pushover.
For younger leaders, this perception is compounded. A 2016 study from the Journal of Organizational Behavior examined how age impacted employees’ opinions of leaders’ effectiveness. It found that age is a status cue for authority, so employees automatically view younger leaders as less powerful than older leaders. When you mix youth and happiness, it can be incredibly difficult to convince employees to take you seriously as a leader.
The Advantage of Happiness
Although seeming overly happy can make you appear like an easy target, a total lack of the emotion can cost you the trust of employees. Research from our company, Skyline Group International, Inc., found that employees prefer leaders who express an appropriate amount of emotions over those who are stoic.
Our research also found that stoic leaders are viewed as being less open and understanding to the feelings of their team, which makes them seem less approachable. Although detached leaders are perceived as more authoritative, there’s an inherent distance between them and their employees. And that makes it difficult for trust to form between leaders and the workforce.
Looking back at the study from the Journal of Business and Psychology, the research found that the advantage of a more emotional leadership style was having referent power. Rather than leading with an iron fist, these leaders have more effective and influential relationships with their employees. They gain their clout by being able to relate and empathize with their team.
Since there are pros and cons to a leadership style based on happiness, it’s important to find balance and be seen as both a respected and a trusted leader. Use your natural impulses to your advantage, while being aware of your weaknesses.
Related: The Real Leadership Quiz
For instance, being a happy leader who notices and values the feelings of your team creates an opportunity to inspire employees. When you’re excited about the success of your company, share your joy while tying the accomplishment back to the hard work of your employees. That will let them see they are valued and your recognition is genuine.
On the other hand, be willing to take control and be authoritative when necessary. Embrace accountability, so if an employee fails to pull their own weight, they’ll have to take responsibility for their shortcomings. If you let subpar performance slide, it’ll be a sign that there are no consequences for laziness.
Being a great leader requires a personal awareness that allows you to play to your strengths while improving your weaknesses. Being a happy leader does come with its disadvantages, but if you work to balance out your leadership style, you can still be an effective leader who is taken seriously by employees.
Thuy Sindell and Milo Sindell are principals in Skyline Group International, Inc. Skyline Group is the leading provider of scalable leadership solutions with a foundation built upon decades of executive coaching with some of the most recognized companies in the world. Learn more at SkylineG.com.