Employee mood can impact productivity for better or worse

Steffanie Wilk, associate professor of management and human resources, has studied call centers extensively through a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation/Rockefeller Foundation's Future of Work program as well as through support from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and the Human Resources Center at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Call centers provide researchers with a closely monitored working environment where employee productivity can be tracked to examine the influence of various workplace dynamics.

In her latest research with Nancy Rothbard, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, they studied the impact of mood on workplace performance. Wilk spoke with Knowledge Link about her findings that are connected to mood.

KL: Your research found an employee’s mood at the start of the work day had a big influence on how well they performed that day. Why is that?

Wilk: In service work dealing with customers, it is important that workers convey a certain mood, usually positive. We wanted to know if either the mood they start the day with or if the mood of the customers they interact with influence the daily mood of service workers and if their daily mood influenced their daily performance. It seems to be that what mood you’re starting the day with seems to be very persistent whether it be positive or negative. If you start the day in a bad mood, you tend to stay in a bad mood. Customer moods seemed to influence a worker’s mood less than start of day mood. What we find is that both positive and negative mood actually has an impact on performance. The reason that was such an important “a-ha” moment for us is because in call centers the work has very little flexibility. So what is really fascinating is that in a job where there is so little discretion, mood has an affect on whether or not you’re actually producing.

KL: So workers in a good mood for what ever reason were more productive?

Wilk: They tended to be more available to their customers. At a call center, there are very strict staffing ratios because they have these peaks and valleys of call volume. When there are moments of high volume they need people to take calls and anytime someone isn’t in the position to take calls they can log themselves out. That gets registered by the computer, so people that are in good moods tend to be more available to take calls than workers who are not in a good mood.

KL: What is the main difference in an employee that was in a bad mood?

Wilk: They transferred more callers on average. Call centers like to solve a customer’s problem at their first point of contact, “one and done” they call it. It is costly, not to mention annoying, for a customer to be transferred around the call center to get their problem solved. Because the calls are randomly distributed, we could rule out that a particular worker received more “difficult” calls. We found that workers in greater negative moods tended to transfer more callers.

KL: With the ultimate goal of running an efficient site, what does management need to be mindful of when an employee’s mood has an impact on their performance?

Wilk: When you have anyone who is dealing with the public they have to give of themselves. They have to be available to do that, to be emotionally ready with stored patience and convey the right mood. To have somebody who has to work harder to convey the emotion that he/she is not feeling (or suppressing a mood that is inappropriate in a service context) takes energy that can decrease their efficiency.

KL: Can employers provide any support programs to help their employees through tough times?

Wilk: I think some of it is just having supervisory staff that is in tune and available. Much of this occurs on a daily basis and those who are closest to the workers on the phones should be aware of changes in their workforce that could have an impact on performance. There also may be organizationally sponsored programs to allow people to get help if they need it.

KL: With so many new ways of communicating, can that help a worker who isn’t emotionally able to answer calls?

Wilk: Organizations are using a more diverse set of means to connect with their customers such as by phone, by e-mail and by various Internet links. Sometimes you find call centers that will rotate workers between them to give them a chance to get off the phones, to allow them to recharge.

KL: Once an employee walks though the door already in a bad mood, is there anything a manager can do to reverse it and save the day in terms of productivity?

Wilk: Breaks are one way that may help turn around a bad mood. Some centers have decompression rooms or rooms where they encourage folks to go to get away from the phones. Some organizations are adamant that an angry or aggressive customer is not tolerated. This provides some support for workers. In those contexts, a worker will bounce that customer to a supervisor who will have to deal with that person. They encourage them to walk it off, a lot of folks leave to go to lunch or take breaks.

KL: Can being in a bad mood hurt the employee?

Wilk: There is some research out now that shows that faking an emotion one does not already feel is emotionally exhausting for workers, which leads to job burnout. Moreover, workers that fake are more likely to be “found out” by the customer. I’m working now on some research that shows this effect. While some may think that a call center worker should not get emotionally involved in the customer’s problems, it is actually better both for the customer and the worker. I would suggest to those managing service workers to have their workers make a point of empathizing and taking the perspective of those they are serving, even if it means they get emotionally involved in the process.