How mood effects performance

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If you've ever had one of those customer service experiences which left you convinced that the employee you were dealing with must have got out of bed the wrong side, new research suggests that could have been exactly what happened.

Because according to a study of telephone customer service representatives, employees' moods when they start their work day has a profound effect on their perceptions of customers and to how they react to customers' moods.

What's more, mood has a clear impact on individual performance - both how much work employees do and how well they do it.

"We saw that employees could get into these negative spirals where they started the day in a bad mood and just got worse over the course of the day," said Steffanie Wilk, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

"That's why it is so important for companies to find ways to help their workers start off the day on the right foot."

Wilk, and co-author Nancy Rothbard of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied the behaviour and performance of 29 customer service representatives working for a large insurance company over a three-week period.

They compared their subjects' mood at various points during the day to their attitude towards customers and assessed how well the representative handled calls. In addition, the researchers measured how many calls the representatives took each day, number of calls transferred, and the percentage of time that representatives were available to customers.

The results showed that when employees started the day in a good mood, they tended to rate customers more positively throughout the day. They also tended to feel more positively themselves as the day progressed.

"Starting off at work wearing rose-colored glasses – or gray glasses – shapes the way we perceive events the rest of the day," Wilk said.

However, while the start-of-the-day mood sets a tone, the results showed that employees' moods could and did change, with employees more likely to see an improvement in a bad mood than the loss of a good mood.

In 17 per cent of the cases studied, employees who started the day with a higher positive mood than normal would later move to a below-average mood after one of their calls.

But in 40 per cent of the cases the opposite occurred: an employee who was in a below-average mood moved into an above-average mood after handling a call successfully.

"Positive customers were related to workers' positive moods," Wilk said.

But, perhaps surprisingly, negative customers didn't hurt employees who were already in a bad mood.

"We call it the 'misery loves company' effect," she said. "If you're in a bad mood, it seems to help to talk to someone else who is feeling as bad as you. Maybe the employees were able to blow off some steam by reacting to rude customers."

Wilk and Rothbard found that a better-than-normal positive mood was reflected in greater verbal fluency on the phone and less verbal fumbling. On the other hand, negative moods tended to result in employees answering fewer calls and needed more breaks between calls.

"Employees knew that they were being monitored and that their supervisors knew when they weren't taking calls. Still, when they were in a bad mood they tended to be less available, which suggested they needed time away," Wilk said. "They just couldn't sit there, take the calls and pretend."

The obvious implication of the research is that employers should do everything they can to help their staff start the day in a good mood.

"We've all heard of companies that start the day with calisthenics or some team-building exercise. Many of us laugh at that, but there may be something to it," Wilk said.

On the other hand, Wilk said she has worked with companies that will dock pay or give a demerit to an employee who is even one minute late – something that the research suggests is completely counter-productive. .

"So if you've had a rough commute and you have to rush to your desk, and you know you're going to be in trouble, that's not a good way to start your workday. Once an employee starts that way, it could have negative consequences for the company the whole day."

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