With social media being such a prominent form of communication, it is often a way that employers and employees reach each other. A study published in PLOS One reveals that organizational leader’s tweets can influence the anxiety of their employees and that this effect is more prominent since the rise of COVID-19.
Humans are a social species, and we can be heavily influenced by each other’s moods and behaviors. Previous research has shown that leaders can sway their subordinate’s emotions both unconsciously and deliberately. Despite this knowledge, this relationship has never been tested in regard to computer-mediated communication. This study seeks to address this deficit by utilizing twitter.
“When we interact and communicate with others, we not only transfer information but also feelings and emotions,” said study author Jon Gruda, an assistant professor at Maynooth University School of Business. “We know that this emotional contagion is likely to occur from leaders to followers because leaders hold a lot of power, authority, and access to scarce resources.”
“So it makes sense to presume that leaders influence their followers’ anxiety even by communicating online via social media. We also expected this effect to be stronger during the COVID-19 crisis, with more and more communication moving online due to socialization restrictions. Our study is the first to test this empirically.”
Gruda and colleagues utilized a sample of 197 leaders and 958 followers from 79 companies. Organizations needed to have at least 10 employees to be counted in this study. Leader positions were considered CEO, CFO, etc., with everything else being classified as followers. Tweets were extracted and rated by US human raters on a state-trait anxiety scale. After this, researchers annotated data with an algorithm to predict anxiety. Each tweet was assigned an anxiety score from 1 to 4.
Results showed that consistent with previous research, leader state anxiety predicted follower state anxiety. Both trait and state anxiety in leaders were related to increased follower anxiety in relation to computer-mediated communication. Additionally, leaders with more state and trait anxiety overall were less likely to alarm their followers with an increase in anxiety due to COVID-19, while leaders who normally don’t tend to be very anxious had followers who were more likely to become anxious when faced with an increase in their leader’s anxiety. This could be because followers who are used to an anxious leader may place less value in their cues and look elsewhere for them.
“We find that leaders can influence their followers’ anxiety even when communicating online but only in the case of less trait anxious leaders,” Gruda told PsyPost. “If you – as a leader – are anxious in general, this can be quite misleading to your followers as they might not recognize the seriousness of a crisis in time.”
“For less trait anxious leaders, however, it is 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 that no one is reading your posts, what you post is powerful. Especially during a crisis context, when followers are even more likely to turn to their leaders for guidance and direction.”
This study took important steps into understanding leader’s influence on anxiety of their followers when it comes to social media as a communication platform, but it has some limitations. Firstly, social media posts are not always an accurate reflection of mood or personality. Additionally, it is unclear how followers’ anxiety might impact their leaders.
“It stands to reason that follower – at least those close to or directly reporting to their leaders – also have influencing power over their leaders, even when communicating online. We are currently empirically examining this relationship as well, and again expect a crisis context to strengthen this influence effect,” Gruda said.
“Given the new rules of work, we expect that virtual communication among leaders and followers will become the norm,” the researcher added. “This means that the ‘game’ of influence will be heavily transferred onto the screen and into the virtual world. This opens up new paths for research and raises questions regarding the understanding and practice of leadership. For example, can communication platforms replace face-to-face communications among leadership agents? These and many more questions are waiting to be explored.”
The study, “Don’t you tweet me badly: Anxiety contagion between leaders and followers in computer-mediated communication during COVID-19“, was authored by Dritjon Gruda, Adegboyega Ojo, and Alexandros Psychogios.