Team Moods

I was once part of a team that was going through a rough patch. We’d been through two reorganizations in eighteen months — not good for morale — and now we’d had a sudden change in leadership. (Which is to say: we found ourselves with no leadership.) There was no vision of the future, no clear lines of responsibility, no accountability. People were leaving — out of their volition and otherwise. It was a mess.

This team included some of the brightest people I’ve worked with. All of us found it very difficult to get anything done. We’d spend more time talking about the state of the team than about the work. We were worried about the future of the company and — of course — our jobs. It was an unpleasant experience for all; I remember the sense of relief when it ended. (The team was dissolved.)

If you’d been able to travel back in time to when I first joined the team, you would’ve gotten a very different picture. We were cracking then! We had a clear vision of what we were doing and who was responsible for what. We had competent and committed leadership. We had deadlines. We had the support of the company. It was exciting work! I have vivid memories of a celebration party the night we launched our first release. Everyone was exuberant.

Same group, two very different situations. In one, we were paralyzed; ineffective. In the other, we were at the peak of our productivity. What changed?

As individuals, we’ve all had times when we’re feeling down. During such times it’s hard to engage with others, to get much done. In such times we may say we’re in a bad mood. Moods are emotional states that last a long time. It’d not just a momentary feeling of joy, apprehension, or fear, but an overarching feeling that sticks with us from day to day.

Your mood is informed by your understanding of the world around you, but it also colors how you see the world. If you’re in a bad mood, everything looks bad. Think of Eeyore in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories: it doesn’t matter what happens, he always has a way of casting it in the worst possible light. We’ve all known people who are like Eeyore, just as we’ve known people who seem unrealistically cheerful even when they’re facing grim conditions. Both extremes can be detrimental.

Teams can have moods too. As a consultant, I’ve experienced a wide range of moods in client teams and in my own. Some teams are thrilled and engaged; you can sense the energy when you step into a room with them. Others are elated but delusional, blind drunk on their own Kool-Aid. Still others are afraid; interactions with them feel oppressive. (That was the case with my team when we were going through our rough patch. We were fearful; an understandable reaction given the conditions around us.)

You’ll often be able to tell things are askew when you’re meeting as a group. In-person meetings are best because you can perceive body language, but you’ll be able to notice signs in conference calls as well if you’re looking for them. Maybe someone says something that comes across as passive-aggressive, leading to an erosion of discourse. Or someone sounds unrealistically excited and others play along. Or perhaps you’ve got a naysayer in the room, and she or he is bringing everyone else down. You may even sense patterns in these behaviors. Whatever it is, if you’re paying close attention you may notice your body tensing up or feeling uncomfortable. Acknowledge these feelings; they may be telling you something’s up.

Moods often go unacknowledged in professional contexts. However, it’s important to be aware of them, since they affect your ability to perceive our context clearly and make level-headed decisions. It’s not that moods are unjustifiable — things may indeed be grim, as in my team above. However, you don’t want them to affect your ability to move forward. What you want — as an individual and as a team — is to act from a position of equanimity. This calls for the self-awareness to recognize when mood is influencing your understanding, and the strength​ to take steps to remedy the situation.