Category Archives: Happy At Work

How to be happy at work

Weird Al’s Mission Statement

How could I possibly NOT share Weird Al Yancovic’s latest song called Mission Statement:

I mean, look at it. It parodies both business jargon and those ubiquitous RSA-style whiteboard videos. Brilliant.

The sad thing is that his parody lyrics are only slightly less comprehensible than some actual mission statements I’ve seen :)

smile

5 Ways Positive Thinking Makes Us Miserable at Work

One German IT company has come up with the perfect solution to whining in the workplace – it’s made cheerfulness a contractual obligation. What’s more, the CEO has declared that those who don’t measure up to the prescribed level of jollity in the morning should stay at home until they cheer up.

The idea of positive thinking (and therefore banning negativity) is not new, but is affecting us now more than ever – at home and at work. And ironically, its effects are mostly negative. Yes, forced positive thinking makes us less happy.

Positive thinking is a poorly defined concept which at its most extreme says, that in every situation you can choose your own mood and your own reactions. No matter what happens to you, you can always choose a positive attitude.

“Fake it til you make it,” they say, claiming that faking happiness actually makes you happier. Basically, if you don’t feel happy every moment of your life, it’s just your own damn fault for not trying hard enough.

Now, this idea is not completely unfounded. In many situations, you can actually change your mood and outlook through conscious effort. Let’s say you’re stuck in traffic on your way to work. In a situation like that you can probably change your mindset and switch from being annoyed about the delay to a more positive interpretation of the situation. “Great, I have more time to listen to this interesting radio program,” or whatever. Nothing wrong with that.

But the most fanatic proponents of positive thinking (especially fans of The Secret and similar pseudo-scientific nonsense) go much further. They claim that you can always change your thinking in any situation, and that external circumstances don’t matter. No matter what situation you’re in, they say, you can simply choose to be happy.

Tell that to someone who’s seriously ill, who’s just been fired or who is suffering from severe depression. Actually, you should never tell them that, because telling someone in a really rough life situation that they should think more positively is incredibly condescending and a terrible way to trivialize their pain.

You could say I positively hate positive thinking :)

There is nothing wrong with the milder form of positive thinking, but the extreme version is bad for you in life and at work. Here are 5 ways positive thinking screws up our workplaces.

1: Faking emotions at work is stressful

In this fascinating TEDx speech, Danish researcher Mette Boll talks about an experiment she performed, in which grocery store employees were subjected to stressful situations on the job.

She found that the most stressful condition was not just having to deal with rude customers – the most stressful thing was to have to fake being positive as it happened.

She talks about biological authenticity and says that:

If you respond to an encounter with your systemic impulse, then there is no stress to your system…

If, however, you filter your response and you do what you’re trained to do in a situation like that, (the customer is always right), then it’s more stressful than anything else we could measure or detect in any of these scenarios.

So simply put, having to fake emotions you don’t have is stressful. That sort of demolishes the whole “Fake it till you make it” idea.

2: Positive thinking makes it even worse for people who are unhappy at work

According to the extreme version of positive thinking, if you’re unhappy at work, you’ve only got yourself to blame. It may be that your boss is a jerk, your coworkers bully you and the culture is completely toxic – you should just “have a positive attitude” and “make the best of it”.

So not only are you miserable, but now it’s all your fault. That makes things even worse.

3: Negative emotions are a natural part of work

Here’s a story I once shared from my previous career in IT consulting:

I had a big client in France who couldn’t make up their mind. In every single meeting, the customer changes the specs for the system. First they want this, then they want that. First they want it this way, then that way. Meanwhile, I’m quietly going crazy.

Finally, I lose it in a meeting. They introduce change number 283 (by my loose count), once again going back on what they’ve told me previously, and I snap. I actually pound the table with my fist, snap my folder shut and say through clenched teeth “No. This can’t go on. This system will never get off the ground if you keep changing your mind at every meeting. We need to make decisions and stick to them”.

In this situation I felt AND showed anger – a negative emotion. I could’ve forced myself to be positive in that situation, but it would have been a betrayal of my work and myself and it would have felt even worse. Not only was authentic by being angry, that outburst finally got the client to respect me.

The thing to remember is that negative emotions are not called that because they’re wrong, but simply because they’re unpleasant. Sometimes a negative emotion is exactly the right emotion and if you’re always forcing yourself to be positive you’re being both less authentic and less effective.

When your circumstances are bad, there is nothing wrong with being unhappy; it is only natural. In fact, negative emotions tend to drive us to action more than positive ones, so feeling bad about a bad situations helps you do something about it.

4: Positive thinking can contribute to quelling dissent and ignoring problems in the workplace

Ever heard someone say “In this workplace we don’t have problems, only challenges”?

I hate that phrase with a vengeance, partly because it’s wrong but mostly because it’s so often used to stifle dissent and criticism.

No workplace is perfect. No job is without problems.  If we consistently marginalize and criticize people who are unhappy at work by telling them to be positive and never complain, we lose some very valuable voices of reason and realism in the workplace.

5: Trying to force yourself to be positive, makes you unhappy

All of this means, ironically, that positive thinking at work makes us unhappy. If we expect to be happy all the time at work we are bound to be disappointed.

So let’s give negativity it’s central place in the workplace – as a perfectly natural, even helpful, state of mind. And that, ironically, will lead to more happiness at work!

Your take

Have you ever felt pressured to be happy at work when you weren’t? What did that do to you? What constructive role do you see negativity play at work? Write a comment, I’d love to hear your take.

A quick note: One thing that often bugs me is that some people confuse positive thinking with positive psychology. We base a lot of our work on positive psychology which is the branch of psychology that studies what makes people thrive and feel happy, where traditional psychology focuses mostly on mental illness. The only thing they have in common is the word “positive”.

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Voting on new employees

This WP article shares an interesting and rare practice from US grocery chain Whole Foods, that has me feeling a little conflicted:

New hires are voted in — or out — by their teams after their first 90 days at the company. A two-thirds majority is required to keep an employee on board.

The employees quoted like the system because:

  1. Existing employees can get rid of new coworkers who don’t pull their weight
  2. New hires get a sense of acceptance themselves because their coworkers have actively chosen to keep them

I’m torn on this. On the one hand I see obvious benefits but on the other hand I can also see some pitfalls. What if someone with a grudge against a new hire campaigns to get that person fired? What if employees see this as management abdicating their responsibility? What if a new hire who gets fired sees this as a rejection by his peers, rather than just a corporate decision?

Read the article and let me know what you think. Is this something you’d like to see introduced in your workplace?

UPDATE: Apparently the article may be explaining the practice wrong. Here’s a comment on reddit from a Whole Foods employee:

It doesn’t really work out as one might assume from the title of this post. No one is fired by vote. Feedback is collected on the new hire’s performance from all of the existing long term people on the team. It is shared with the new person and either his/her probation period is over or extended according to the performance ratings received by the fellow team members. WFM utilizes the same progressive discipline practices used at most large companies.

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When the boss says, ‘Don’t discuss your salary’

The Atlantic has an excellent article by Jonathan Timm on how companies try to keep employees from discussing their salaries with coworkers and how this perpetuates unfairness and lets them underpay some people.

From the article:

… about half of American employees in all sectors are either explicitly prohibited or strongly discouraged from discussing pay with their coworkers. In the private sector, the number is higher, at 61 percent.

We don’t know whether gag rules directly cause wage discrimination, but they undoubtedly open the door to it. Employers who keep pay secret are free to set pay scales on arbitrary bases or fail to give well-deserved raises because of social norms. “When you don’t have transparency and accountability,” Hegewisch told me, “employers react to these pressures and biases and women tend to lose out.”

The article also makes the point that workplaces can not legally keep employees from revealing their salaries or retaliate in any way when they do.

I examined this topic in an article way back in 2006 and I am convinced that keeping salaries secret harms not only employees but also workplaces.

Read the article here – it’s called Top 3 Reasons why Secret Salaries are a Bad Idea.

words

3 things businesses can learn from facebook’s controversial experiment

You may have heard about facebook’s controversial psychological experiment in which they altered what some users saw in their facebook news feeds so that some users saw more positive posts than normal and others saw more negative posts.

The experiment is being slammed in the media and I honestly think the criticism is going too far, considering how tiny the effect was on the subjects.

But regardless of whether you like the experiment’s setup, the results are interesting and apply not only in social networks but potentially also in workplaces. Here are three lessons workplaces should take to heart.

1: Written communication is emotionally contagious  - so watch your email tone

The purpose of the experiment was to examine emotional contagion, a well-known psychological phenomenon that basically means that we are affected by the emotions of people around us. Spending time with happy people makes you happier, spending time with sad people makes you sadder, etc.

Many experiments have shown that we are affected by people we spend time with, but this is the first experiment to show that emotional contagion also happens through written words alone.

This supports the idea that we should watch our language in emails and other written communication at work, because the words we use can affect the recipients.

2: This could potentially snowball

The experiment showed that the subjects who saw fewer negative messages in their newsfeeds increased their own positive output AND reduced the number of negative messages slightly.

This means that increasing positivity in written communications could potentially have a snowball effect, because people who received fewer negative messages would then write fewer negative messages themselves.

Of course the opposite is true as well: Seeing more negative messages makes people write more negative and fewer positive messages themselves which has probably already caused a snowball effect in many workplaces.

3: Seeing fewer emotional messages made people withdraw overall

Interestingly, people who saw fewer messages with either positive or negative content shared less on facebook in the following days. Experimenters call it “a withdrawal effect.”

This is interesting because many workplaces tend to suppress emotions of any kind, which could theoretically lead to people withdrawing and being even less likely to express emotions at work.

The upshot

I want to make this very clear: I am not arguing for mindless positivity, of for outlawing negative messages or negative emotions at work. What I’m saying is that this experiment indicates that we affect people’s emotions simply by the words we use and we can use this knowledge actively to avoid having an unnecessarily negative effect.

Your take

What are emails in your workplace like? Noticed any patterns? If researchers were to run the same linguistic analysis they ran at facebook, what would they probably find? Have you noticed any effect on yourself?

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