Why mood matters

A leaders' attitude is highly contagious, so you'll need to lift yourself in order to lift others. David Bolchover reports.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

It's Monday, winter is rapidly approaching and the radio is buzzing with the latest story of recession, redundancy and bankruptcy. As workers throughout the country cram into trains and buses, or sit in interminable traffic jams on drab motorways, the national mood seems to be verging on the black. Or even the Black Dog.

That all sounds very depressing, but what have people's moods got to do with the world of management and business? At such a difficult time, shouldn't we be more concerned with the nitty-gritty of turning the economy around, rather than with the touchy-feely stuff that we all got hooked on in the boom years because we had money to burn? It appears not. Mood is crucial. It was crucial in the boom, and it is crucial in the bust, perhaps even more so.

Organisational psychologists have been paying increasing attention to the commercial significance of mood over the past couple of decades. In the industrial era, we relied on machines functioning to their optimum capacity. Now, in a knowledge economy sustained by ideas, the machines that matter are our brains, and they are a little more complex than their factory counterparts.

Evidence points to a clear relationship between our moods and assorted aspects of job-performance, such as decision-making, creativity, teamwork, negotiation and leadership. Success might put you in a good mood; but it is perhaps more accurate to say that an organisation that collectively looks at a glass 50% charged with water and sees it as half-full rather than half-empty, stands a better chance in difficult times.

Depressed individuals will always see the glass as half-full and rapidly emptying. It is an enervating state. It saps energy, and those affected are preoccupied with feelings of worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness. Depression can also impair the ability to communicate. It's not hard to see parallels with organisations that get the blues.

Sigal Barsade, associate professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that poor moods distract attention and waste vital energy, whereas good moods allow the mind to focus and progress. 'Positive people cognitively process more efficiently and more appropriately. If you're in a negative mood, a fair amount of processing is going to that mood. When you're in a positive mood, you're more open to taking in information and handling it effectively.'

Beyond individual performance, there are broader issues at stake here. Office workers are not islands, all alone being happy and productive or miserable and preoccupied. What makes moods even more potentially beneficial or destructive is their infectiousness. This 'emotional contagion' lies at the root of what we call corporate morale.

Some people are more infectious than others. If the shy payroll clerk has got a gloomy demeanour, few may notice. But if the boss is wandering around looking like he needs a king-sized dose of Prozac, that directly affects team spirit. Leaders' moods are highly contagious.

According to Nigel Nicholson, professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, certain individuals without formal status can also play a key role in transmitting mood. 'In any organisation, there are opinion-leaders. They are not necessarily bosses, but they are at the centre of informal networks. They have charisma and magnetism, possess strong opinions and express them forcefully. They therefore have considerable social power and can influence morale.'

Contagion in investor confidence is a recognised influence on financial markets. But what is less recognised is the effect of emotional contagion on the economy as a whole. If mood is contagious, and poor mood equals poor performance, then an economic downturn could well be self-reinforcing. Financial worries and job insecurity make us anxious and depressed, our work suffers, and the collective downward spiral means that the economy takes longer to turn round than it would have done had we all been feeling more sanguine.

What's more, just to make matters even worse, it may be that it takes longer to get out of a negative mood than a positive one, in turn arguably making recessions more enduring than boom periods. (The median duration for a depressive episode in humans is 23 weeks.) Both individuals and economies fall off the top quickly, but getting off the bottom is a major struggle, and if the British economy was right as rain again by next Easter we'd all be thrilled.

'Feelings of anxiety are quite difficult to dispel and can spread quite rapidly,' says Nicholson. 'Positive moods are more fragile. Even when things are going well, there are always lots of doomsayers. There aren't many people about in a downturn saying we've got good times around the corner.'

The media has recently been accused of being particularly prone to this imbalance. During the boom years, there was no shortage of commentators telling us what was wrong with our society and economy. But during tougher times, you won't find too many telling us there is a silver lining around the dark cloud looming overhead. It's hard to imagine Robert Peston popping up on Radio 4's Today Programme these days with some heart-warming glad tidings. That is not his schtik and may not be his responsibility.

Following the logic of emotional contagion still further, the US might seem a good bet to extricate itself from a downturn more quickly than the UK. The American dream - the belief that everyone can lead a successful life if they want it - is central to the country's national identity. Ask a patriotic Brit what he loves about his country and he is likely to talk about physical objects, such as Queen, countryside and warm beer.

The strong suspicion that some nations are more optimistic than others adds further weight to the belief that mood is heavily influenced by one's environment. Indeed, this has been convincingly borne out by studies of identical twins raised apart, which show that roughly half of the variability in personality is not inherited through one's genes but through environmental factors.

All this naturally leads us to questions that might at first sight seem far removed from the world of government bailouts and declining growth figures, but are actually of considerable economic importance. What really does affect people's moods, and what can individuals and companies do to lift their own or their employees' spirits?

The research analysing the factors behind workplace mood is still at an early stage. A recent Wharton study analysing call-centre workers found that the mood you bring to work has a stronger effect on work performance than subsequent events - a bad commute will lower performance levels over the day more than the odd rude customer. Likewise, employees who start the day in a good mood are likely to stay that way. The report suggests: 'A business's performance might be enhanced by efforts to help employees cope with mood-affecting influences in their private lives'.

The study also discovered the value of experience in controlling one's mood. The only workers whose mood was adversely affected by angsty customers were those with the least time on the job. The more battle-hardened simply put up their shutters.

Younger call-centre workers will react more strongly to negative customer experiences for several reasons. First, they are likely to view their job as merely the first step on the ladder to greater things, so care more about what happens in the office. Second, the unattached might not have the same domestic distractions to keep more trivial work issues in perspective. Third, older workers have had more time to defeat adolescent insecurity. And finally, experience has taught them what the newcomer still has to learn - in textbooks, the customer is king; in the world of large offices, he is a virtual irrelevance. What matters is your boss.

Indeed, this is why the direct supervisor's mood is so infectious. Not because you would lose sleep worrying about their happiness, but because he or she has the power to make your job enjoyable and rewarding, miserable and boring, or even take it away from you completely. Pretty much everything that determines an employee's fundamental attitude at work is under the control of the manager.

Giving employees autonomy and offering them challenging work to match their skills and interests should in turn trigger the motivation and satisfaction that override the frustration of a traffic jam or the irritation of a computer glitch. Failure to do so might result in an underlying resentment and anger that might be brought to the surface by a seemingly innocuous episode.

There is nothing that puts an employee in a better mood than some positive feedback. 'At last, someone has noticed little old me.' Timothy Judge of the University of Florida summarised his own research into the effect of managerial feedback on mood in this way: 'Positive performance feedback... enhances motivation through the positive feelings generated by the feedback... Rather than focusing on sub-standard performance and correcting improper behaviour, managers would be better served by praising high performance.' Perhaps the practice suggested by the adage 'Catch them doing something good' not only makes staff feel good but is also good for business.

Some people can put themselves in a positive mood. They are what the job adverts call 'self-starters'. No doubt America has a lot more of them around than the UK does. One tends to think that the bulk of British office workers need their machine coaxed into operation by someone else. Managers are therefore pivotal to mood, and the good ones will really be earning their corn at the moment.

Indeed, the task facing managers and organisations in general has become a lot more complex with the current economic troubles. You can give workers all the positive feedback you want, but if they see business walking out of the door every day, they might nevertheless end up in a negative mood worrying whether they will soon have any job to go to at all.

So how can organisations get their people to be positive despite everything? Barsade believes managers need to 'connect with employees, both cognitively and emotionally. First, they need to explain that the current situation is only temporary; it won't last for ever. By focusing on their work, employees can help to make the situation better. Second, managers need to persuade people with their actions and expressions that they themselves are genuinely hopeful that things will get better.'

The latter is not easy, particularly when the managers might be feeling pretty gloomy themselves. Faking it, a process psychologists call 'surface acting', won't cut it; others will quickly see thorough the deception. According to Barsade, managers should aspire instead to 'deep acting', where they actually modify their feelings to match the emotions the organisation requires. This is not fake, but merely an attempt to regulate emotions, a constant human endeavour. In this instance, it is lifting oneself before trying to lift others.

Positiveness should not, of course, be confused with blind recklessness, or with what Alan Greenspan termed 'irrational exuberance' to characterise the behaviour of financial markets in boom periods. Positivity and caution are not mutually exclusive, and millions of successful entrepreneurs manage to maintain a healthy balance between the two.

Perhaps the concept of talent, the fashionable people-related corporate doctrine of the past decade, fails to grasp the reality of work and leads to a negative resignation among much of the workforce. If you're not considered 'talented', why bother trying? In fact, most people could probably do most jobs well if they really put their mind to it. If firms paid more attention to mood and less to talent, maybe the winter would finish sooner, and we could bask again in the sunshine of prosperity.

LIFTING THE GLOOM: WHAT CAN ORGANISATIONS DO?

1. Seek positive people

'Given that individuals differ in their positiveness,' says Judge, 'one of the ways in which organisations can promote positiveness is to hire positive people.'

2. Appoint the right managers

The importance of putting the right people in managerial positions cannot be underestimated. Managers must have the capacity to lift themselves, and the willingness to try to lift others - a rare attribute. They must genuinely want to work hard to match people's motivations with their jobs, and constantly encourage them in the pursuit of their potential. In these times, a more avuncular, even paternal approach may be appropriate: a metaphorical arm around the shoulder to keep spirits up thoughout the team.

3. Convey a positive narrative

'Companies and leaders need a story,' says Nicholson. 'We're in a mountain range. Sometimes we're at the top of the mountain, and sometimes we're in a valley - which is where we are now. If you keep walking, we will soon get to the sunny uplands. Let's celebrate our strengths and keep moving.'

4. Help staff to help themselves

Seminars on techniques to maintain a positive outlook despite surrounding events might help workers to keep plugging away in adversity. We are the ultimate arbiters of our own moods and, consequently, of our own success. Are the sceptical British ready for this very upbeat American-style message? The spirits of the Blitz and Dunkirk were quieter and subtler. They involved looking out for those around you.

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