A highly positive team atmosphere can be beneficial, but only if the members have the skills to manage that emotion productively, according to new research.
And whether a positive group mood is good for productivity or not may be influenced by what type of task a team has to carry out, said organisational psychologist Associate Professor Ashlea Troth of the Griffith Business School.
The findings were published recently in the journal Cognition and Emotion.
“Positive mood does not always link to performance. It very much depends on the type of task and on the emotional skills of the group as well,” said Dr Troth.
“In some situations it might be a distraction. It’s not a one size fits all.”
Since the early 1980s, psychologists have been studying what they call the “affective tone” of the workplace, where entire groups of people take on emotions including happiness, enthusiasm, anger or apathy.
It’s good to muck around and be incredibly cohesive but it can lead to poor performance if you can’t rein it in.
Associate Professor Ashlea Troth
“It’s almost like this process of emotional contagion happens where people within a team start to catch each others’ emotions and they start to converge in terms of the emotions they experience,” said Dr Troth.
And as team-based structures in the workplace become more common, there is increasing interest in how emotion in teams affects productivity.
While you might be forgiven for thinking a more positive team mood would lead to better team performance, actual research on this has produced conflicting results.
Team mood and productivity experiments
Dr Troth’s PhD student Ms Amy Collins ran two different studies involving 70 groups of students (ranging from three to six members) to investigate how a positive team mood affected productivity.
In one experiment, groups had to make a team decision where they were faced with a hypothetical survival situation involving a plane crash-landing in a wilderness area.
Each group had to rank 12 items — including a compass, hand axe, newspapers, ball of steel wool, cigarette lighter, loaded pistol, piece of canvas, chocolate bar and a bottle of whiskey — for their importance in surviving that scenario.
They had 15 minutes to come to both individual and consensus rankings, which were then compared to those from survival experts.
In another experiment, groups had to generate ideas about what new business should replace a hypothetically bankrupt campus restaurant. The group had to come up with as many creative solutions as possible within 10 minutes.
In both experiments researchers measured the team’s mood and emotional skills.
Overall, the results were mixed. Some groups with a more positive mood performed better, but others performed worse.
Managing the emotion of others is important
Regardless of the task, however, one specific emotional skill consistently determined if a positive mood delivered better performance: the ability to manage the emotions of others.
The ability to manage the emotion of others is part of the set of skills called emotional intelligence.
The skill is important, for example, in being able to calm down an angry colleague or settle down someone who is having the sort of fun at work that distracts from the task at hand.
Having people with this ability in the group also guards against groupthink, in which members of a group don’t independently express their views.
“They can pick up on cues more, and are more likely to get other people to express their views,” said Dr Troth.
She said groupthink, which can stifle creative thinking and problem solving, is particularly common in highly cohesive groups, and cohesiveness is in turn more common in groups with a positive mood.
Dr Troth said the “counterintuitive” finding that some positive groups did worse than less positive groups (found in the consensus decision-making task) made sense once the researchers realised this was the case only when the group was low in the ability manage each others’ emotions.
One way a lack of such emotional intelligence could have hindered productivity with this task is by there being no moderation of the impact of someone joking around so much they distracted focus from the task at hand.
“It’s good to muck around and be incredibly cohesive but it can lead to poor performance if you can’t rein it in,” said Dr Troth.
The sense of oneness felt by a happy group could also have led to them becoming complacent, or a victim of groupthink.
By contrast, said Dr Troth, the link between positive mood and good performance (found in the brainstorming task) was accompanied by high group emotional intelligence, which could have created a supportive environment where people felt free to express their ideas.
As well as the moderating influence of emotional intelligence, the impact of positive team mood on productivity could also be influenced by the specific tasks being carried out.
For example, she said, the need to contain jokes and maintain focus on a task may have been more important in reaching consensus than a brainstorming exercise.
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Topics: science-and-technology, psychology, anthropology-and-sociology, community-and-society, australia
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