Office Moods Can Spread Like the Flu

Catch a good feeling at work, or you can just fake it. Meanwhile, what are the ingredients to success as a CPA? Join the study. Get the answers.

May 14, 2007
by Rick Telberg/At Large

Have you got a bummer or a grouch in the office? You know, one of those people always in a nasty mood? Or, perhaps worse, one of those perpetually chirpy people who carry emotional stilettos and aren’t afraid to use them on others’ ideas?

Bummers and grouches are as inevitable as taxes and death, but that doesn’t mean you have to suffer them gladly. Odds are these people don’t even know what the effect they’re having on others. They think their moods are so contained that no one else is seeing the dark secrets inside their skulls.

Not surprising, this is not true.

A new study finds that emotions are a lot like viruses — they’re contagious. In an organization that operates as an interactive series of meetings, e-mails and phone calls, a mood can spread like a bad cold.


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People are not “emotional islands,” according to researchers Sigal Barsade, a Wharton management professor who studies the influence of emotions on the workplace, and Donald Gibson, an associate professor at Fairfield University's Dolan School of Business. When people come to work, they bring their brains (well, most of them do) and their emotions.

And when those emotions are negative, they can negatively affect everyone they contact. Unfortunately, these emotions are not easily hidden. The slightest frown can kill an idea. The softest “tcht” can taint a relationship. Eyes, most certainly, override words.

The study identifies a concept called “emotional labor,” the effort some people make to fabricate a positive emotion while suppressing a negative one. Airline agents seem to be especially good at this, their inevitable smiles deflecting the anger of stranded passengers.

And there’s “deep acting,” which is apparently healthier and more productive. The “deep actor” learns to generate a certain emotion as necessary; for example, a nurse might “turn on” his or her empathy while helping a patient. Some advice: Don’t let the bummers smother your office morale. As a professional, you should make an effort to manage your emotions in the office.

Obviously you can’t go around telling one person to unwrinkle his brow a bit, another to lower her nose half a notch and another to pronounce “please” a little more softly.

A wise way to manage office emotions is to help people understand a few things:

  • Their emotions are contagious
  • Their emotions are more obvious than they think
  • A fake smile may be better than a real frown
  • It’s possible to generate an emotion
  • They may have to forgive others when their moods turn sour

In some cases, you might need a one-on-one meeting with someone whose mood has negatively impacted the office. Of course, this needs to be done nicely, and with a good dose of empathy. Here’s what you can do in that meeting:

  • Listen for whatever problem might be causing the bad mood, and try to solve it if you can
  • Empathize with any problem that you can’t solve
  • Identify what is revealing the negative emotion (a tone of voice? snippy comments? facial expressions? body language?)
  • Suggest specific ways in which the individual can change
  • Explain that the mood is affecting the office and its employees
  • Ask the person to help you make other people feel better

While it might seem nice if people didn’t bring their emotions to work, would you really want to work in a place like that? Emotions are part of being human, and let’s face it, there’s nothing better than working with humans, even the bummer and the grouch.

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COMMENTS: Rants, raves, idle thoughts or questions? Contact Rick Telberg.

Copyright © 2007 Bay Street Group LLC. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission

About Rick Telberg

Rick Telberg is editor at large/director of online content.

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Disclaimer: Any views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or CPA2Biz. Official AICPA positions are determined through certain specific committee procedures, due process and deliberation.