Be honest now. What would you do if you came to work one morning and found the entire management team standing before you, big toothy smiles plastered across their scary, evil faces?
Would you turn around and run out of the building like a wimp, or would you stand your ground, quietly weeping, mewing and begging for mercy?
Frankly, either reaction would certainly make sense. No one could blame you for concluding that a smiling management team is up to no good. But guess what — they could be smiling because they had read the research about happy employees being more productive employees, and decided to treat happiness as a highly contagious disease — a disease for which there was no defense and no cure. Once you saw the whites of their eyes and teeth, you would have no choice; you’d have to be happy.
If this horror story plays out in your workplace, you can blame Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk, associate professors at the business schools of Ohio State University and the University of Pennsylvania. Or so they were in October 2011 when Rothbard published an article on the subject in The Wall Street Journal.
The article, entitled “Put on a Happy Face. Seriously,” described research done by the two profs on happiness in the workplace. (You would think it be would difficult to find any examples of happiness in the workplace in 2011, but apparently, the researchers managed.)
“We asked U.S.-based telephone customer-service representatives for a Fortune 500 company to record their moods at the start of and at various times during the day for a three-week period,” Rothbard wrote. “The reps who were happy at the start of the day generally stayed that way as the day progressed. Those who came to work miserable, on the other hand, tended to feel worse after interacting with customers, which in turn led to a 10 percent decline in their productivity.”
Putting aside the pure misery of constantly being asked if you are happy, two or 10 times a day, you have to admit that work can actually feel different depending on your mood. But deciding whether or not you are happy may not be quite so black and white. Take today, for example. If I remind you of all the people who don’t have jobs, you’re happy with your miserable job. But if I tell you that I’m dictating this column while sitting on the talcum-powder white sands of Bongo-Bongo, a mai tai in one hand and a Cuban cheroot in the other, even a wonderful job will leave you unhappy.
Despite the fuzziness of the entire happy-unhappy syndrome, the professors suggest that employees and employers can “reset a negative mood” before it can influence the workday. For employees, “that might mean stopping for a coffee, listening to a favorite piece of music or taking a more scenic route to the office.” Or you could do all three — stop for coffee and listen to heavy metal as you watch incredibly buff dancers undulate in their undies at the Kit Kat Club. Talk about scenic!
Employers can also do their part by starting every workday with “a quick motivational gathering with staff members each morning.” Really! What an excellent idea! Can you even imagine what a font of inspiration your manager could be if given a platform to motivate your sorry butt every single morning of every single workday? And if a “quick” gathering at the start of the day is good, wouldn’t an “endless” motivational meeting that runs to the end of the day be even better?
Gosh — I’ll bet you’re feeling happier already.
One surprising finding was that “interacting with customers who had worse-than-average moods actually made the employees feel less bad.” Since few of us call customer service because we’re so darn happy, the service reps could probably count on an almost endless supply of unhappy people. And if customers weren’t unhappy when they started the call, you can bet they were unhappy after a two-hour wait, followed by a curt conversation with an operator who explains, “I’ve almost got this issue resolved,” before suddenly disconnecting the caller.
In fact, this may be the most important result of Rothbard’s and Wilk’s research. Now we know why customer service is so awful. The reps are trying to make us feel worse because it makes them feel better.
And I think we can all feel happy about that.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at firstname.lastname@example.org.