The High Cost of Bad Moods

Research in behavioral science is showing that there is a trend toward higher irritability in the workplace — especially in the United States — and it has been more pronounced over the last 24 months. In short, more of us spend more time in a bad mood at work than ever before.

There are even healthy, if snarky, internet memes on the subject. In one, the comic strip character Calvin howls, “I’m in a very bad mood, so nobody’d better mess with me today, boy!!” Bad moods are generally the result of higher stress, lower satisfaction, elevated levels of fear (even if we do not have something specific to be afraid of) and an increase in feelings of powerlessness. Bad moods are also contagious, according to Scientific American. And in a business, bad moods are expensive. Consider these examples pulled from a recent organizational psychology study.

  • The senior vice president of a bank’s branch operations is unhappy with a decision his boss made and takes his irritability into a meeting with a branch manager. She leaves the meeting feeling tentative and concerned for her job. When she declines to make a reasonable accommodation for a longtime customer, the customer’s family business moves to a competing bank.
  • A surgeon with a reputation for being unapproachable arrives for surgery in a particularly bad mood. Surgical staff say nothing when the surgeon opens the wrong leg on a patient.
  • A plant manager, angry about budget cuts, shortens his morning safety meeting. While the engineering staff is drawing straws about who will tell him about a maintenance issue that needs attention on one of the lines, a belt breaks and there are three serious injuries and one death.

What may be most discouraging about this normal human condition is that if we begin our day in a bad mood, we are likely to remain moody and unapproachable for the entire day. It takes a concerted effort to shake off a bad mood — and generally one of the conditions of our mood is that we feel no reason to need to change it.

But change it we can and change it we should. Going through the day in a bad mood is not positive for our performance or our career. And it can create rifts that take weeks, months, even years to get over. If you are the leader of an organization, failing to shake off a bad mood gives tacit permission for the entire organization to do the same. So, here are a few ways to shake off a bad mood:

Get outside! Even a five-minute walk outside, focusing more on the sky, birds, dogs and kids in a park, whatever nature offers can provide a reframe allowing the ability to let go of a foul temperament.

Oxygen is your friend. A few deep breaths are useful for clearing the body of stress-inducing hormones.

What am I really irritated about? A little time in consideration of the source of your irritation, anger, or discontent can be useful as well. It may be that the thing most driving your bad mood can be addressed constructively, but only if you identify it.

Does this all sound simplistic? A little on the “armchair shrink” side? Perhaps. But in the end, we are human beings. And as leaders in an organization we have an obligation to both model the behavior we want in others, and be the standard-bearer for the culture we aspire to create. If taking five minutes out to reset your own mood then prevents you from modeling poor behavior that often can lead to poor business outcomes, that might be the most important five minutes of your day.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, April 24, 2017.