Coping With A Moody Boss

Moody bosses can be the bane of many people’s working life. “Grumpy”, “crabby”, “sullen” and “crusty” may be adjectives for these mercurial managers.

Besides being difficult to work with, a temperamental leader’s behaviour can be contagious.

Researchers Thomas Sy at California State University, Stephane Cote at the University of Toronto and Richard Saavedra at the University of Michigan, noted that moody leaders can “infect” their subordinates with their moods. Their recently published study in The Journal of Applied Psychology indicated a manager’s mood can enhance or lessen employee performance.

Moodiness is not depression. Moody people may also be depressed, but moods are typically general, low-intensity states (those not connected to a specific, intense emotion, like acute fear, for instance) and have no identifiable cause. They aren’t always negative. Some moods include enthusiasm, excitement and elation.

Sometimes it can be difficult to identify whether you are working for a moody leader. And knowing what to expect from them can be tricky too.

Subtle signs can indicate whether your boss is moody. For example, do you sometimes feel down at work and don’t know why? Some people slip into a funk when they arrive, or dread walking in the door – but can’t pinpoint the cause of their malaise.

You may find yourself trying to reduce the amount of time spent in your manager’s presence. Often, staff who work with moody supervisors find it hard to discover what pleases the manager.

Staff may increasingly doubt and blame themselves, wondering, “What have I done to put him in such a rotten mood?” or, “May be it’s me, may be she’s grumpy because of something I did.” or, “If I can find the right way of relating, the mood may lift.”

You may feel unusually tense when working for a moody manager and notice that when the manager is absent the tone at work is lighter, less stressed and more collegial.

Identifying a moody boss is only half the battle. Understanding what to expect when working for such a leader is important, too.

The researchers found that in the short term, team effort increases for a moody boss. People will try to please him or her by putting more time into a project or task, believing the leader’s cranky tone indicates he or she feels not enough progress is being made. By putting in more effort, staff hope to improve the leader’s mood. When the leader seems enthused or excited, employees feel they are on the right track.

Staff keep a close eye on their leaders, scanning for indications of approval regarding their job performance. Moody leaders may inadvertently convey a sense of urgency or unease because their glum countenance signals things aren’t going well.

When staff infer they are not living up to expectations, they tend to work in a less co-operative, collegial fashion. Moody leaders reduce worker collaboration. According to the researchers, teams function less effectively under a grumpy manager. Staff find they communicate with each other less and don’t seem to get along as well as they could. Time gets wasted under temperamental supervisors.

Along with a tense work environment and poorer staff co- operation, employees can expect to arrive home after work in a bad mood themselves.

Leaders tend to affect subordinates more than subordinates affect leaders. Grumpy workers may have less impact on their leaders, but manager moods are amplified because of their power role. For that reason, leaders must regulate their moods at work.

While leaders seem to be more contagious than their subordinates in transmitting negative moods, staff can still “inoculate” themselves. Workers are wise to refrain from taking leader moodiness personally. Knowing you work for a touchy boss can help. Labeling your boss’s behaviour is also important. By identifying the mood you see (grouchy, melancholy or moping) and remembering it’s the boss’s feeling – not yours – helps you keep your distance.

Remember, your efforts won’t necessarily change the boss’s moodiness. Only the leader can accomplish this. Concentrate on nurturing your own upbeat outlook.

While moods are generally not associated with a particular situation or event – most often there is no cause – you can look for patterns. Is your boss moodier at certain times of the year? Does he become truculent over particular kinds of jobs?

Knowing that your boss is ultimately in charge of his or her mood and can take steps to change it will help staff keep their balance.

In the end, those who can manage their own emotions well and who understand that their mood influences effective teamwork will see an increase in performance and enthusiasm from their staff. Those who don’t will notice a decline in their own quality of life and find their staff groups confused, tense, wary and less productive in the long term.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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