What psychology tells us about the leaders we choose to follow

It doesn’t matter whether you’re the leader of a political party, or captain of the local football team, if you’re going to lead your team to success it’s vital that you strengthen their confidence in the team’s capability.The key difference being that as a political leader, your ‘team’ is your party and all of its followers. That’s a much greater group of people to influence.

So, how do you do it? A number of psychological studies have shown the power of emotional contagion in influencing followers’ mood, building trust and improving team performance (De Cremer &Wubben, 2010).Watch a strong, self-confident leader present at a board meeting, or to a large crowd,and see people begin to mimic their expressions, vocalisations and posture (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994).

In the leadership literature, this is often referred to as transformational leadership – where a leader’s emotional expressions of optimism, resilience and hope can determine followers’ perceptions of leadership effectiveness and trustworthiness (Bono & Anderson, 2005).

More than good looks

But is a positive outlook in the face of adversity really enough to win over a team… or a nation of voters?

According to a recent study drawing on the breadth of research on the psychological phenomenon ‘social identity theory’, there’s more to building team confidence than a “mystical process of contagion” (p90; Fransenet al., 2015).

‘Social identity theory’ asserts that we define who we are based on two key criteria – our personal identity (I and me) and our social identity (us and we). Our personal identity represents our unique sense of self, whereas our social identity represents the goals, values, and interests we share with others.

Building on previous research, Fransen and colleagues sought to understand the mechanisms through which a confident leader can influence their followers’ belief in the team’s future success. They hypothesised that when leaders expressed confidence in their team, this would transfer to team members. They positedthat this process would be mediated by social identity and collective efficacy, where increased confidence would reaffirm shared values and beliefs. This in turn would increase team performance.

The study, conducted with sports leaders, confirmed that leadership confidence contagion was indeed facilitated by a leader’s ability to strengthen the shared sense of ‘us’, which consequentlyincreased team performance. When a leader was perceived to have low confidence in their team’s capability, the opposite effect on follower behaviour and team performance was found.

We follow people leaders

Key to the interpretation of this study’s results isthe leader’s expressionof confidence in the team as a whole, and not just their personal capability to steer the way. It’s this collective confidence that taps into our social identity and builds our belief in the shared goals that must be achieved.

The research suggests there’s more to effective leadership than being ‘likable’. It’s instead about having a people focus. Ithighlights the power of a leader who can effectively manage the sense of ‘us’ by expressing confidence in a shared capability to deliver against common goals. Think back to Obama’s victory speech – “Yes, we can”… a confident statement of belief in the nation’s capability to achieve it’s shared vision.

We follow leaders who can set clear direction, align people towards a common goal and motivate and inspire us to succeed.


  • Bono, J.E. & Anderson, M.H. (2005). The Advice and Influence Networks of Transformational Leaders. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90 (6), 1306 – 1314.
  • De Cremer, D., &Wubben, M. (2010). When does voice have to be more than only listening? Procedural justice effects as a function of confident leadership. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 9, 69–78.
  • Fransen, K., Haslam, S.A., Steffens, N.K., Vanbeselaere, N., Cuyper, B.D., &Boen, F. (2015).  Believing in “Us”: Exploring Leaders’ Capacity to Enhance Team Confidence and Performance by Building a Sense of Shared Social Identity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 21 (1), 89 – 100.
  • Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J., & Rapson, R. L. (1994). Emotional contagion. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  • The Independent. (2015). General election 2015: Chart reveals which party leader we like the most. Retrieved 2nd May, 2015, from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/general-election-2015-which-leader-do-we-like-the-most-10220481.html


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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at Changing Point. To find out more about how Changing Point can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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