Leadership is a difficult job. A leader requires many skills in order to be successful. Not just practical skills, mind you. The ability to read and assess the emotional reactions of subordinates quickly and accurately is also paramount. This skill, also known as emotional aperture, is an important leadership skill that allows leaders to interpret group reactions to organisational events.

“Emotional aperture ability provides a leader with a wealth of information about how a group is responding emotionally to a situation, and allows her to behave appropriately and strategically,” says Prof. Ying-yi Hong, Choh-Ming Li Professor of Marketing of Department of Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School.

In her recent research study in collaboration with researchers at Australian Catholic University in New South Wales and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Prof. Hong explores how culture affects emotional aperture.

“Accurately reading collective emotions is particularly necessary as individuals are regularly more dependent on accurate inferences regarding the collective’s beliefs, goals, and action tendencies, to harmoniously navigate social life,” she says.

Prof. Hong also mentions that unlike perceiving individual emotions, where attention rests on a single focal target, perceiving collective emotions requires focusing on a broader view of targets. Given the inherent subtle, variant, and fleeting nature of emotional cues, the task of understanding the overall affective composition of a group can be challenging.

Previous studies on emotion have shown that people with high global processing ability are more successful at recognising collective emotions. Due to its interdependent culture, Easterners are known to be more affected by emotions displayed by the surrounding people than Westerners. However, does it mean that Easterners are really better at recognising collective emotions than Westerners?

The answer is a little more complicated than one might think. Through a series of in-depth social experimentation, Prof. Hong’s research found that Chinese participants demonstrated a higher level of accuracy in recognising group emotions than their American counterparts.  However, the Chinese participants showed a lower level of accuracy in identifying individual emotions than the North Americans. Additional responses showed that the Chinese participants were more global cognitive-oriented than their Western counterparts.

Further scrutiny and testing suggested that the indirect effect of global cognition on collective emotion recognition was significant. In other words, the Chinese students’ higher performance in recognising collective emotions was in fact influenced by their higher level of global processing.

“Growing up where the emphasis is on attending to the forest rather than the tree, it appears to shape fundamental ways individuals see emotional reactions,” says Prof. Hong. “Our results shows that among individuals from cultural contexts known to foster interdependence as compared with independence, there exists a greater ability to recognise subtle shifts in the emotional reactions of the collective.”

Moving forward, the professor says more research is needed on how culture interplay with psychological processes are needed in order for human beings to have a more comprehensive understanding of how we make sense of the world.

“This research represents the first and initial exploration at examining evidence for cross-cultural variability in decoding collective emotions. As such, it opens a new line of investigation within the budding literature on collective emotion recognition and complements the traditional focus on individual emotion recognition processes,” says Prof. Hong.

A more detailed description of Prof. Hong’s study can be found here.


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