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Nancy Rothbard Ph.D.
Nancy Rothbard Ph.D.

Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Desk—And Staying There

How start-of-day mood impacts work performance

Most managers don’t give much thought to the experiences their employees are having right before they get to work. Maybe one employee sat in hellacious traffic and another quarreled with her teenage daughter. Someone else dropped a buttered bagel on his new shirt. Others spent time getting elderly parents ready for their daytime routine. Managers would do well to pay more attention to their staffers’ morning moods. My research with Steffanie Wilk, an associate professor at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University, shows that start-of-day mood can last longer than one might think—and have a significant effect on job performance.

In our study, “Waking Up On The Right Or Wrong Side Of The Bed: Start-Of-Workday Mood, Work Events, Employee Affect, And Performance,”i we examined how start-of-workday mood serves as an “affective prime.” An affective prime—similar to the proverbial rose-colored glasses--is something in an environment or situation that orients you to see and respond to events in a certain way. Our work builds on research on affect (emotion) in organizations, a growing focus in recent years.ii In our study, we asked the question of whether start of day mood or “waking up on the right or wrong side of the desk” could follow employees throughout the day and influence their work performance.

To investigate how start-of-workday mood plays out in the real world, we studied full-time customer service representatives (CSRs) in an insurance company’s call center over several weeks. The company already had detailed performance metric tracking in place, and because the CSRs were at their computers much of the time, we were also able send them periodic pop-up surveys throughout the day to gauge how they were feeling. We studied their mood as they started the day, how they viewed work events such as customer interactions, how they felt after these interactions, and how this emotional response to customer interactions related to their performance. (We accounted for the reps’ temperament and the varying emotional content of the calls: for example, a customer directly reporting an auto accident might make for a more emotionally fraught call than speaking with an insurance agent.)

Both vicious and virtuous cycles emerged, linked to how employees felt at the beginning of the day. Reps who started out happy or calm usually stayed that way all day, and interacting with customers tended to further enhance their mood. For the most part, people who were already in a terrible mood didn’t really climb out of it, and felt even worse after interacting with positive customers.

Most importantly, we discovered strong performance effects when it came to quality of work and productivity. The employees who were in a positive mood provided higher-quality service: they were more articulate on the phone with fewer “ums,” verbal tics, and improper grammar. The employees who were in a negative mood needed to take frequent breaks from their duties to get themselves through the day. These small breaks piled up, leading to a greater than 10% loss of productivity.

How can managers use these findings to boost employee performance? Several interventions may nip in the bud what could be a damaging start-of-workday mood. Managers might send out gently humorous or morale-boosting emails in the morning, or hold a regular group huddle to provide support. Even just getting people to smile goes a long way. Psychologists have identified a phenomenon known as facial efference: the act of smiling, even if not spurred by feelings of happiness, actually causes people to feel good.iii

Managers can also allow people a little space first thing in the morning, for example to chat with colleagues before an early meeting. People also need time to “recover” or “reset” the night before,iv so managers may want to think twice before launching a late-night barrage of emails as this might set employees up for a bad start to the next day. And if an employee arrives a few minutes late, confronting him or her about it later on instead of immediately may yield a more productive conversation and a more productive workday.

Employees, for their part, may want to take a deep breath before walking in the door, creating an “intentional transition”. This might involve taking a different route to work, giving themselves a pep talk, or singing along to a favorite tune.

One interesting (and counterintuitive) finding was something we called “misery loves company.” Some CSRs who were feeling bad as they started the day actually felt less down after handling customers who were themselves in a bad mood. Perhaps this was due to perspective-taking in which they realized their own lives were not so terrible.

In any case, it’s clear that waking up on the right or wrong side of the desk does have an effect—for good or ill—on the quality and productivity of one’s workday. But, beyond strong coffee, there are several tactics managers and employees can use to help everyone make the most of the day.


iRothbard, N. P., & Wilk, S. L. (2011). Waking up on the right or wrong side of the bed: Start-of-workday mood, work events, employee affect, and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 54(5), 959-980. doi: 10.5465/amj.2007.0056

iiBarsade, S. G., Brief, A. P., & Spataro, S. E. 2003. The affective revolution in organizational behavior: The emergence of a paradigm. In J. Greenberg (Ed.), Organizational behavior: The state of the science (2nd ed.): 3–52. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

iiiZajonc, R. B., 1985. Emotion and facial efference: a theory reclaimed. Science, Apr 5; 228(4695):15-21.

ivBinnewies, C., Sonnentag, S., & Mojza, E. J. 2009. Daily performance at work: Feeling recovered in the morning as a predictor of day-level job performance. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 30: 67–93.

Sonnentag, S. 2003. Recovery, work engagement, and proactive behavior: A new look at the interface between nonwork and work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88: 518–528.

About Nancy Rothbard:

Prof. Nancy Rothbard is an award-winning expert in work motivation, teamwork, work-life balance, and leadership. She is the David Pottruck Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She is also faculty director of "The Leadership Edge: Strategies for the New Leader,” an Wharton Executive Education program running November 17-20, 2014.

Prior to Wharton, Prof. Rothbard was on the faculty of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, and holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Michigan. She has published her research in top academic research journals in her field and her work has been discussed in the general media in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Business Week, CNN. Forbes, National Public Radio, US News & World Report and the Washington Post.

About the Author
Nancy Rothbard Ph.D.

Nancy Rothbard, Ph.D., David Pottruck Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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