Remember the motivational posters that dotted the walls of your high school? Cats hanging with one paw from a branch, elephants walking a tightrope across a canyon. The message was more or less the same: "Hang in there," "You've got this," "The hardest part is behind you."
Ridiculous, really. Most of us laughed at them behind closed doors -- turning them into memes before memes were even a thing.
In later years, I've come to see the value in encouraging a positive outlook. It's saved me in many academic situations and countless professional ones. Slowly, however, this positivity has morphed into something artificial. Toxic, even.
I've seen once-meaningful work celebrations turn into daily affairs -- grand hurrahs for simply completing tasks. MVP awards handed to employees who, well, just hang in there. Congratulations for proffering an original idea.
Award inflation is not news -- many have written about the rise of a culture centered on "trophies for everyone," but there's a thick, dark lining that hasn't fully been explored.
First of all, award culture depends heavily on dopamine boosts. We get it once or twice and we want it more and more -- the easier it is to get, the more we go after it. No surprise, then, that The Atlantic wrote about trophy culture producing a generation of workaholics. Work more, get more praise.
Even beyond award-giving, however, rampant positivity in the workplace messes with our sense of reality. Days are filled with ups and downs, failures and successes. This applies to work-a-day company life as much as it does to life at home. And yet too many companies are cultivating a culture of "yay" at every turn, pressuring employees to hide their gripes, grievances, and grimaces under the rug.
The result -- and I've seen this firsthand -- is a sea of employees who boil beneath the surface but grin in meetings, cheerily use exclamation marks in emails, and flood their Slack messages with emojis. Overcompensation.
The unfortunate consequence is clear. Nobody can sustain a false persona for long -- the negatives will erupt either at work or at home. As I'm sure you can imagine, neither one is good. Relationships are damaged, projects derailed, jobs lost.
We need to flip the script. Positivity is good, but we need to make space for bad days and frustration. The key to employee happiness is not pretending away negativity, but giving it its place: in one-on-one meetings with superiors, in confidential sessions with human resources, or in off-the-clock gripe sessions with employees.
Messaging is key. As a leader, strive for positivity, mutual support, forward movement, growth. At the same time, acknowledge that growth is sometimes painful and difficult, and give your employees permission (and appropriate space) to acknowledge that pain.
Otherwise, you become a laughing stock. Worse yet, employees will explode with aggression, compounded hurt, and vocalized pain when the suppression of negativity becomes too much to handle. More often than not, the consequences are disastrous.