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Employers: Are your grumpy staffers underperforming? The answer, according to researchers Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk, may be chocolate chip cookies. 

OK, Rothbard and Wilk’s research does not directly address the productivity-boosting powers of baked goods. In an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Rothbard noted that providing free food is one reliable way to spread cheer among employees. 

“Countless psychological studies have used cookies as a way to generate positive moods in participants,” she said. But their work does suggest that finding ways to nudge workers into better moods may be an effective way to deal with employees who wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

Rothbard, associate professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and Wilk, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University, studied customer service representatives at a large insurance company to determine how workers’ moods at the start of the day impact their attitudes and performance. 

The results?

“Whether [employees] wake up on the ‘right or wrong side of the bed’ is related to how they perceive work events, how they feel subsequent to those events, and how they perform during the day,” the researchers conclude, in a paper published in the Academy of Management Journal last fall. 

Those who started out the day in a good mood were more likely to feel positive after speaking with customers; those who came to work in negative moods had more negative reactions to customer interactions.

Furthermore, employees’ moods affected their ability to do their job, according to the study. Those in more positive moods performed better on customer calls, while those feeling bad required more breaks and were less often available to take calls. 

The good news for managers is that a traffic jam or a bad night’s sleep need not doom employees to substandard work performance. Rothbard and Wilk also determined that the mood in which a worker starts out the day is not set in stone. 

“There is also evidence that work events matter and that employee affect does fluctuate,” Rothbard and Wilk write. 

After speaking with customers who seemed to be in good moods, the employees’ own moods improved, according to the data. Unexpectedly, talking to customers who seemed to be in negative moods actually made workers feel less negative (potentially because they used some sort of emotional defense to compensate, the researchers theorized). 

For managers, the study suggests that some classic ways of handling employees may not be the best route to improving performance. Scolding an employee who shows up a few minutes late because she had a fight with her husband may be counterproductive, Rothbard and Wilk suggest. 

“By acting punitively toward an already frazzled employee first thing in the morning, a manager may be setting the employee up to have a less productive day,” they write.

On the other hand, however, finding ways to improve employee moods could lead to better work performance. Managers, the researchers say, should be aware of how their interactions with employees might affect their workers’ moods and reactions. 

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