Business Psychology

Article No. 351
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Mood-Altering Supervision

Research discovers a way to influence other's moods.

Have you ever become impatient with another person's "blue" mood? Have you ever thought to yourself "Why don't you just cheer up?" You may have even said those words aloud. After all, when an employee has a blue mood, it's likely to be impacting others, maybe even customers. It could be hurting the business. It could be defeating the mission of the agency. If the person is a family member, then the peace and tranquility of your home is in jeopardy. There needs to be something you can do about blue moods. Fortunately, thanks to Nathaniel Lambert from Brigham Young University, there is.

Negative emotional experiences typically slam into people and won't let them up. We brood over them, relive them, and regret more effective actions we didn't take that could have made all the difference. Funny thing, though, about negative emotional experiences, positive emotional experiences are much more common. According to Professor Lambert, they're a resource for people, and they could be more effectively utilized. If they were, then people's lives might be happier, but Professor Lambert went beyond merely calling attention to this possibility, he conducted five experiments demonstrating how to exploit this resource and measuring what happens when we do. He has shown us how to improve people's moods.

Lambert experimented with two techniques. The first I call a double at-a-boy. The second was a one-month journaling assignment. Here's what he did.

With the first technique, Lambert assigned a cognitive skills test and then took the person's completed work out of the room for "scoring." When he returned, he said, "Congratulations! You did extremely well on your test! You got in the top 10%! Hardly anyone gets that high of a score. I was so impressed when I saw the results that I told your partner (who was in the next room) how well you did. I hope you don't mind." Shortly thereafter, subjects received an email from their partners. It read "Great job!!!! I heard you got in the top 10%. I'm so proud of you. The guy told me your task was a good measure of logic skills, and it sounds like it's pretty hard to do as well as you did. Bet you'll do just as well on your next one!!!"

The reaction in the moods of those who received these messages was striking. Lambert's measures of mood showed a doubling in their scores compared to subjects who received other types of reactions. The improvement in their mood was immediate, and it demonstrates that anyone can take the initiative to improve the blue mood of another person merely by following this example. Supervisors can deliver double at-a-boys whenever they wish. The formula is simple: take a sample of performance. React enthusiastically to it. Tell the person that another important person has been informed, and then have this second person supply a similar enthusiastic response.

The second technique began with a written assignment. Subjects were given the month-long task of writing daily journals describing their grateful experiences. It could be events of that day, events from earlier in their lives, or conditions of their lives, i.e. good health. Twice a week, subjects were to sit down with a partner and describe what they had written, elaborating as they wished. Lambert measured happiness, satisfaction with life, positive affect, and vitality, and all the measures consistently showed significant improvement for those given this assignment. As with the first technique, it was crucial that a second person become involved. People who write gratitude journals must share these feelings regularly with someone important to them if their moods are to improve.

These techniques work, but why? Lambert believes three separate processes are triggered.

First, a shared event becomes more vivid, and when another person agrees with its meaning and importance, then the grateful experience takes on validity and social reality. It becomes real for more than just one person. It becomes a shared memory that people agree is important.

Second, when another person seems pleased with what we do, it strikes at the heart of why people try to a good job in the first place, to please the supervisor. It's also why we enjoy telling jokes and appreciate applause, and it leads to a revised self-appraisal, a boost in self-esteem.

Finally, it does occur to people that doing well and being noticed may lead to future, positive outcomes. It sure can't hurt.

Lambert believes that a sharp, positive kick in a person's mood can trigger a spiraling, positive, self-feeding chain reaction that a leads to long-term, positive mood changes. Positive affect, broad-minded coping, interpersonal trust, and social support feed each other and lead to broad, long-lasting changes in vitality and satisfaction with life. Like putting a match into kindling at the base of a pile of timber, before long, warmth begins to climb into the cold branches and creates something new. Double at-a-boys and journaling with sharing are your matches.

Reference: Lambert, N., Gwinn, A., Baumeister, R., Strachman, A., Washburn, I., Gable, S., and Fincham, F. (2012). A boost of positive affect: The perks of sharing positive experiences Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 2013 30:24 (originally published online 9 August 2012,

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See Also:

Emotional Regulation on the Job
The Contribution of Bad Moods

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