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Moods Good and Bad Make the Rounds at Work

September 02, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From his post at the information desk in the lobby of the Burbank Centre building, Astor Gonzalez sees about 1,500 employees pass by each weekday, scurrying to their jobs in the morning, hurrying out to lunch and back, and finally shuffling home again.

Some look less than cheerful, especially coming in.

Some frown as they walk by Gonzalez.

But luckily for them, Gonzalez, 25, is one of those chronically cheerful types who doesn't take it personally. Even if they're frowning, he usually can't help but smile at them--and sometimes extend a kind hello.

"And the next thing you know, they're smiling," says Gonzalez, smiling as he relates the process, "and going on their merry way."

Gonzalez's constant good nature is also a boon for his boss, Josh Lash, 25, who says whenever he comes to work grumpy he is soon cheered up by Gonzalez.

To hear these two talk, you'd think good moods are as contagious as colds among co-workers. But are moods--good or bad--so easily transferred from worker to worker?

Gonzalez and Lash think so.

So does a team of British researchers who recently observed accountants and nurses on the job, looking for what they call, in academic terms, "evidence of mood linkage in work groups."

For years, behavior researchers have studied married couples and college roommates, trying to determine whether one's gloomy or depressed mood could rub off on the other, says Peter Totterdell, a research fellow at the University of Sheffield's Institute of Work Psychology. And many, but not all, studies have found that depression and gloominess did seem to affect the partner or roommate negatively.

In recent years, Totterdell and others have expanded their study of moods to the workplace, trying to determine whether the same contagious effect might exist.

"Emotions at work is a fledgling field," Totterdell says. "People have tended to concentrate on the rational side of work."

In their recent workplace studies, Totterdell and his colleagues tracked 65 nurses on 13 work teams for three weeks and nine accountants on another work team for four weeks. The nurses recorded their moods in diary booklets at the end of each working day and at the end of the study also answered questions about their commitment to work and other details.

The accountants carried pocket computers that sent them an audio signal at random three times a day, at which time they were instructed to record their moods, workload and work problems.

In both studies, an association was found between the subjects' moods and those of their teammates, say the researchers, whose study was published this summer in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The nurses most affected by their co-workers' moods, the British team found, were those more committed to their job, older workers and more expressive types--the "wear your heart on your sleeve" people.

"It's not clear why they are affected more," Totterdell says.

So how exactly do you catch someone's mood?

"Two possible ways," Totterdell says. People might automatically, but unconsciously, mimic the voices, posture and facial expressions of others, leading to a "convergence" of their emotions with those of the person they are mimicking, Totterdell says. Or a person might listen to information about how others are feeling and begin to feel the same way.

Of course, both processes can occur at the same time, he says.

The study results, scoff some psychologists familiar with the research, simply state the obvious.

But others see the research as a promising foundation on which to build.

David Abramis, a professor of management and human resources at Cal State Long Beach, also has observed moods on the job becoming contagious.

"The research makes sense to me," he says. "Whether it is universally true, I can't say."

But in his work as an organizational psychologist consulting for companies, he has observed that "the more dependent you are on another person to get your work done, the more likely it is that the person's mood will affect your own." That probably goes double, he says, for the boss.

The more interdependent a work team is, the more contagious the moods of the workers probably are, Abramis adds. Workers in a small medical office, for instance, who are highly dependent on each other to get their work done, would be more likely to catch each others' moods, Abramis predicts, than workers in, say, a university academic department who operate more autonomously.

And, as Totterdell points out, the study has limitations. It's difficult to separate the effects other people have on your mood from the effects of the situation. Are you in a bad mood because your office mate is grouchy or because you've all just heard there will be no raises this year?

Even with the limitations, this study is good news if you work with the office Pollyanna, bad if you're stuck by the office grouch.

Avoiding the person is the obvious, but not always practical, strategy.

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