There are few things more infuriating than being told to smile -- or worse -- to "lighten up."

But many workplaces, in an effort to reap the rewards of positivity and engagement, are spending millions of dollars to do just that.

Predictably, the results are employee disengagement and, in some cases, running afoul of the law.

Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board ruled against T-Mobile because of a provision in their employee handbook that requires workers to maintain a "positive work environment." Their concern was that this language might discourage employees from speaking freely, or even organizing to improve their conditions.

At the heart of the ruling was the "ambiguous and vague" nature of the provision.

Yet, isn't this how we almost always try to make others, and even ourselves, feel better? We encourage vague notions of "positive thinking," and most often try to modify our thinking to our environment, rather than working to change that environment, whether by leaving it or improving it.

Thus, we languish in bad jobs -- and even bad marriages. And as managers, we most often ask employees to feel better, without necessarily addressing the root cause of their dissatisfaction.

At best, we do nothing to improve the situation. At worst, our efforts to create positivity actually destroy it.

Positive Thinking Isn't the Answer

In her new book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, Harvard Psychologist Susan David explains that suppressing negative thoughts and feelings can take a huge toll on our mental well-being.

In a recent interview, David explains "What the research shows is if we push away thoughts and emotions, they will come back magnified. ... So the idea that we could somehow push our emotions aside to be happy doesn't make sense."

This suppression of one thought or feeling in favor of another results in a rather predictable reduction in creativity, problem solving, and even self-control. As we recruit cognitive resources to the task of quelling our bad thoughts, we have less mental power available for the knowledge work or creative labor that most modern workers are engaged in.

What to do instead.

On a personal level, David encourages us to develop what she calls "emotional agility": the ability to feel and acknowledge a wide range of emotions -- including negative ones -- while also being able to navigate our way out of them.

David outlines a four pronged approach to developing emotional agility:

  1. Showing up: Be present to what you're feeling without judgment.
  2. Stepping out: Create some mental space between you and the emotion.
  3. Walking your why: Identify beliefs and behaviors that are important to you.
  4. Moving on: Cultivate habits and behaviors that are congruent with your values.

Easier said than done, of course, but taking a moment to pause and think through these steps when faced with a difficult emotion will be far more effective than trying to suppress the bad thought.

When it comes to encouraging a more positive workplace, you need to be careful of policies that are vague and can be used to selectively punish or suppress anyone who doesn't align with the boss' concept of positivity. These policies stifle engagement and may put you in legal jeopardy, since they can be seen to discourage criticism of the employer.

Instead, work to create a culture of feedback, accountability, and participatory decision making. This means the boss needs to play by the same rules as everyone else, be open to hearing critique of their performances, and make honest efforts to improve. Nothing discourages engagement faster than a fickle boss.

Further Reading

To learn more about the topics raised above check out these resources.

What Makes People Feel Upbeat at Work
By Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker July 30, 2016