Some people can walk into a room and instantly put everyone at ease. Others seem to make teeth clench and eyes roll no matter what they do. A small body of psychology research supports the idea that the way a person tends to make others feel is a consistent and measurable part of his personality. Researchers call it “affective presence.”
This concept was first described nearly 10 years ago in a study by Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein. They put business-school students into groups, had them enroll in all the same classes for a semester, and do every group project together. Then the members of each group rated how much every other member made them feel eight different emotions: stressed, bored, angry, sad, calm, relaxed, happy, and enthusiastic. The researchers found that a significant portion of group members’ emotions could be accounted for by the affective presence of their peers.
It seems that “our own way of being has an emotional signature,” says Elfenbein, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
It’s been known for some time that emotions are contagious: If one person feels angry, she may well infect her neighbor with that anger. But affective presence is an effect one has regardless of one’s own feelings—those with positive affective presence make other people feel good, even if they personally are anxious or sad, and the opposite is true for those with negative affective presence.
“To use common, everyday words, some people are just annoying. It doesn’t mean they’re annoyed all the time,” Elfenbein says. “They may be content because they’re always getting their way. Some people bring out great things in others while they’re themselves quite depressed.”
Unsurprisingly, people who consistently make others feel good are more central to their social networks—in Elfenbein’s study, more of their classmates considered them to be friends. They also got more romantic interest from others in a separate speed-dating study.
Hector Madrid, an organizational-behavior professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, has taken a particular interest in how the affective presence of leaders in the workplace can influence their teams’ performance. He and his collaborators have found that leaders who make other people feel good by their very presence have teams that are better at sharing information, which leads to more innovation. Subordinates are more likely to voice their ideas, too, to a leader with positive affective presence.
“When you propose novel ideas, that is in some way dangerous, because you are challenging the status quo,” Madrid says. “People are not necessarily open to novel ideas, so in order to speak your ideas, you need to feel safe. Positive emotions are important for that.”
Exactly what people are doing that sets others at ease or puts them off hasn’t yet been studied. It may have to do with body language, or tone of voice, or being a good listener. Madrid suggests that further research might also find that some people have a strong affective presence (whether positive or negative), while others’ affective presence is weaker. But both Madrid and Elfenbein suggest that a big part of affective presence may be how people regulate emotions—those of others and their own.
Throughout the day, one experiences emotional “blips” as Elfenbein puts it—blips of annoyance or excitement or sadness. The question is, “Can you regulate yourself so those blips don’t infect other people?” she asks. “Can you smooth over the noise in your life so other people aren’t affected by it?”
This “smoothing over”—or emotional regulation—could take the form of finding the positive in a bad situation, which can be healthy. But it could also take the form of suppressing one’s own emotions just to keep other people comfortable, which is less so.
Elfenbein notes that positive affective presence isn’t inherently good, either for the person themselves, or for their relationships with others. Psychopaths are notoriously charming, and may well use their positive affective presence for manipulative ends. Neither is negative affective presence necessarily always a bad thing in a leader—think of a football coach yelling at the team at halftime, motivating them to make a comeback. Elfenbein suspects that affective presence is closely related to emotional intelligence. And, she says, “You can use your intelligence to cure cancer, but you can also use it to be a criminal mastermind.”
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