Be a Leader: Size Up Your Audience


Michigan Ross Professor Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks shows how reading collective emotional cues plays a big role in how well leaders connect with teams.

Performers call it “reading the crowd” or “sizing up the audience.”

However you put it, new research from Michigan Ross Professor Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks shows this skill, which he calls emotional aperture, isn’t just important for performers — it can define your success as a business leader.

He and a team of colleagues built on longstanding work in emotional intelligence research — the ability to read and react to people’s emotions — and applied it to the collective setting relevant to business leaders.


“Leaders don’t have the luxury of one-on-one meetings with all members of their organization, and we’ve overlooked the unique challenges and potential benefits of reading the emotional distribution of a team, unit, or a division,” says Sanchez-Burks, professor of Management and Organizations. “What our new research does is demonstrate that shifting the aperture of one’s attention from an individual to a collective is a distinct facet of emotional intelligence. In addition, we show it can be measured and developed with practice. This approach to emotional skills resonates with the realities and constraints placed on leaders.”

In three studies, Sanchez-Burks and his colleagues show that business leaders better able to read the nonverbal emotional cues of a group are more successful in the eyes of their subordinates. They also showed that that one’s skill in reading individual emotional cues doesn’t carry over to reading a crowd’s.

The results are outlined in the paper, “Assessing Collective Affect Recognition via the Emotional Aperture Measure,” which will be published in an upcoming special edition of the journal Cognition and Emotion. His co-authors are Laura Rees, PhD ’14, a post-doc at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management; Caroline Bartel of the University of Texas McCombs School of Business; and Quy Huy of INSEAD Singapore.

To perform the studies, the team developed a test — the emotional aperture measure — that rates your ability to read collective emotions and allows you to learn how to adjust. The test is based on changes in facial expressions among groups of people.

It’s a technique used in leadership training for Ross MBAs and in Executive Education.

Why is it important?

“Good leaders can make real-time adjustments when leading groups,” says Sanchez-Burks. “If you’re making an announcement, for example, and the emotional cues of the group show a mixed reaction, maybe your message isn’t clear. That’s something you’ll miss if you’re not in tune with the collective. Or when leaders want to foster a bit of discontent so people are open to strategic change, emotional aperture allows them to know if and when they are succeeding.

“This isn’t about reading static or purposeful emotional expressions. Many times, reasonable people in business try to hide their authentic emotional reactions to organizational events and a leader’s message. But our research shows that good leaders are able to decode these fleeting micro facial expressions people are not good at controlling and adjust accordingly.”

The good news is that people can be trained to see the emotional big picture.

“Taking the test tells you if you’re looking at the forest or a tree,” he says. “If you’re aware you’re looking at a tree you adjust your aperture, like a camera lens shifting its focus from an individual in the foreground to the full landscape.”

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