We don’t like to be told to cheer up.
If there’s a grimace on our face, it’s usually for a good reason.
But are you expected to be cheerful at work? And what if your workplace culture includes having a “positive attitude”?
It’s a platitude that’s been around in job descriptions and person specifications for years. But what does it actually mean?
It’s a phrase that’s mired in subjectivity and open to all kinds of interpretation. One person’s positive attitude is another one’s cheesy grin.
Well it looks like we’ll have to think about what it actually means in practice a lot more carefully.
Last year, the National Labour Relations Board in America ruled that T-Mobile’s reference to a “positive work environment” was ambiguous and vague. And this lack of explicitness meant that employees might alter or even curb their behaviour for fear of breaking some unspecified cultural norms. So, by telling employees to be positive, but not what that meant in practice, the policy had the reverse effect.
In a fascinating article in the New York Times, Maria Konnikova pulls together the psychology involved in trying to cajole, encourage, persuade or even dictate to employees what having a positive attitude should look like.
Unsurprisingly, the conclusion is that the more we are told to be positive, the less likely we are to feel it. We are like two year olds, says Konnikova, “tell a toddler exactly what to do and what not to do, and she balks. Let her figure it out within a certain framework, and she is happy”.
We are happiest when we feel most in control. So the answer lies in allowing autonomy that helps to foster emotional positivity. Sure, give us some general rules and a framework and lead by example but then let us work out our own interpretation of what we’ve seen and heard.
The psychology has profound implications for anyone involved in employee engagement, corporate culture or just trying to create a great place to work.
Sometimes it all comes naturally, other times it needs a lot of hard work and leading by example.
Either way, knowing that we are all toddlers at heart is a good thing to get our heads round.