Have you ever received an apology from your boss that you felt was disingenuous? It seems you’re not the only one. A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that displays of emotion by people with a high power status are generally perceived as less authentic and less sincere due to their perceived ability to control and manipulate emotions.
The study was undertaken by Prof. Arik Cheshin from the University of Haifa together with an international team of researchers from the United States and the Netherlands, headed by Prof. Peter Kim of the University of Southern California.
In a series of experiments, each involving hundreds of participants, the researchers presented several business situations in which an employee committed a transgression. Some participants were told the person involved was junior level, while others were told it was the CEO. The researchers showed the participants photos and videos of the employee displaying various emotions following the transgression – happiness, sadness, anger and fear.
In the following experiments, the researchers examined the same situation, but this time relating to a real incident. Participants were shown a real video clip of the CEO of Toyota crying and apologizing for failing to take action, even though he knew there were brake problems in various vehicles. Again, some thought the person was junior level and others were told he was the CEO.
In all three cases, findings showed that the CEO’s emotions were perceived as less sincere than those of the junior employee due to their perceived ability to control and strategically manipulate emotions.
“The assumption is that the CEO has much more to lose, and accordingly has a stronger motivation to try to use emotions to create empathy,” said Chesnin. “Accordingly, the participants described them as less sincere.”
When it came to willingness to forgive, the researchers’ experiments once again found that the CEO was perceived as less sincere and less deserving of forgiveness. Participants gave much more detailed explanations as to why the junior worker should be forgiven.
“Positions of power come with a disadvantage,” Chesnin concluded. “We examined this issue in the context of the business world, but we can certainly apply the conclusions to other spheres, such as politics. The more senior the politician, the more we are inclined to assume that they are better at controlling their emotions and are using emotions strategically.”