Reshaping the “Mood Elevator”

Reshaping the -Mood Elevator-I recently completed a training for work that used a concept called the “mood elevator” to explain the emotions people might feel during the work day and how those impact performance and experience. The mood elevator describes a linear continuum of emotions with the most negative (“depressed”) at the bottom, and the most positive (“grateful”) at the top. The general idea is that people perform and feel better the closer they can get to the top of the mood elevator. The concept certainly has merit, but I think it can be improved.

The Mood Elevator, from
The Mood Elevator, from

The assertion that being at the top of the mood elevator enhances performance has empirical support. Consider Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory of emotions, which posits that positive mood states lead to greater curiosity and creativity, while negative mood states narrow focus on threats and prevent out-of-the-box thinking. As a rule of thumb, “positive emotions are better at work than negative ones” isn’t bad.

But what about the times that a negative emotion can be adaptive?

One negative emotion that can be helpful in some circumstances is fear or worry. At work, sometimes being attuned to high risk situations can motivate more strategic choices. Periodic stress, provided that it is followed by times of recovery, can lead to growth.  I once heard Rosalind Picard of MIT say that when people get angry, it can spur positive change. These are all examples where dwelling at the bottom of the mood elevator, at least for a short while, can be advantageous.

Another issue with the mood elevator is that it considers only one dimension of emotion, valence (negativity or positivity). Other dimensions can also influence workplace experience. Consider intensity, or the strength of a feeling. “Depressed,” “stressed,” and “worried,” three of the emotions on the negative side of the mood elevator, each carry very different energy levels with them which would lead to different performance effects.

I realize that the mood elevator is intended to be a teaching tool and a useful heuristic, not a comprehensive model of emotions. That said, I think there’s value in teaching people to embrace the full range of emotions they might feel at work, and recognize how to use each one in the most adaptive way possible. Being angry at work isn’t a bad thing if it means someone takes action to right a counterproductive situation. The mood elevator, in my mind, should be more like a toolbox, where different moods are tools that best fit certain types of situations.