Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 302
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Contribution of Bad Moods

Research discovers a contribution that negative moods can make and reveals ways to tap it.

Imagine a work setting dominated by veteran employees: middle-aged, white males who are well-trained, well-educated, and have an average tenure of 15 years with the firm. Let’s make it a service firm where every day brings something new. Supervisors and employees have a lot in common in this kind of firm, so people work together, rather than low skilled employees following orders they don’t understand.

Once you have this image in mind, think of cheerful, happy men working together. There will be give and take, joking about the typical ailments of middle age, and frequent conversations about the work. Some of these conversations will challenge inefficiencies and suggest improvements. Positive mood is an important feature here because positive moods kindle useful, creative ideas in a work setting. That’s one of the findings of research carried out by Jennifer George from Rice University who studied just such a firm.

Professor George began her study with a recognition that moods at work are never totally positive. Everyone has blue days, and some days more people are in negative moods than positive moods. But regardless of the mood of the day (or the mood of the hour), people still need to work together, and it must be good work or there will be trouble.

Can people in negative moods make a positive contribution in a service setting, and if so, how can supervisors draw out this contribution? These were questions that dominated George’s study.

People tend to listen to their moods. If they are in a positive mood, then they tell themselves that everything is going well, and there aren’t many serious problems that demand attention. They are more trusting of authority, and they tend to see problems as having simple solutions. They are playful, expansive, and tend to generate many novel ideas. Often, these ideas aren’t very good even though they seem just fine when they are proposed.

When people experience negative moods, they listen, too, but the messages are different. Their environment presents problems, they’re sure of it, and people feel compelled to systematically examine these problems to try to figure out what’s wrong. They want to fix things. They’re interested in looking at facts and understanding them. They notice shortfalls and focus on their causes. They’re detail oriented, and they’re ready to exert a high level of energy and effort to make improvements.

To a casual observer, it’s obvious that we need a balance of both contributions in our firms if we are to make progress, but George found that the contribution of people in negative moods is often not made. It is lost, so she investigated and found a way to recover this contribution. The task falls on supervisors.

Supervisors possess information. They know why some decisions are made. They know people and history. They know who does what in other parts of the firm. Supervisors are a valuable resource for employees who want to figure out what’s wrong and fix things, and when supervisors are forthcoming about what they know, negative employees are encouraged. People in bad moods are refreshed to find a resource who will help them understand and help them recognize opportunities to help.

Supervisors also dispense kindness, dignity, and respect, and people in negative moods need it badly. If they are to expend effort to straighten out problems, and if they are to propose solutions that might go terribly wrong, then they need a supervisor who will catch them if they fall. They need a supervisor they can trust who will not make them the scapegoat should their ideas go wrong. They need room to fail in order to be encouraged to make their contributions. They will withhold their contribution if they don’t have confidence that their supervisor will be supportive.

Supervisors are also experts at what they do. They know the work of their departments better than anyone. They know everyone’s job and can fill in during emergencies. They are professional, dedicated, knowledgeable, and capable, and they can be counted upon to act in a responsible manner. When supervisors display this level of professionalism, then people in negative moods are encouraged. They know their improvement ideas will not be dismissed if they have merit. They know good ideas will be championed by supervisors who are experts, and they know that a high regard for such supervisors isn’t limited to subordinates. Many years ago researchers found that people who are experts at what they do exert a great deal of influence. People listen to them, and employees in negative moods count upon it.

Finally, supervisors comment to people about their work. We call it feedback. Feedback that is positive and focused on learning matches negative employees’ desire to learn ways to fix problems.

In George’s study, the best outcome resulted when supervisors displayed all of these qualities in their interaction with employees experiencing negative moods. It was the best way to capture the contribution such employees have to make and to enlist their help in the ongoing effort to do the best work of which we are capable.

Reference: George, Jennifer and Jing Zhou (2007) Dual Tuning in a Supportive Context: Joint Contributions of Positive Mood, Negative Mood, and Supervisory Behaviors to Employee Creativity. Academy of Management Journal, 50(3), 605-622.

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