What Makes People Feel Upbeat at Work

Posted on August 6, 2016

Creating a positive work environment sounds like a noble aspiration for both businesses and the people who work for them. No one ever says that they want to work in a negative environment, after all, or even in a blasé one. And yet, in late April, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling against T-Mobile for that very aspiration: the telecommunications company had run afoul of the law by including a provision in its employee handbook requiring workers "to maintain a positive work environment in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships."

The law has its own imperatives, but if you took the same work-environment mandate and put it through a different intellectual grinder—in this case, social science—would you come up with a different result? If we agree that a positive environment is a worthy goal, we still have to agree on how, exactly, to foster such an environment. Research certainly suggests that people thrive in positive and supportive spaces: they are happy and satisfied; they are motivated and optimistic, setting higher goals and working harder and longer; they are creative; they are less likely to burn out and more likely to stick with a company or project. But can you actually create positivity by mandating it?

“It sounds really nice. It sounds like they’re creating a civil workplace,” Alicia Grandey, an organizational psychologist at Penn State who studies emotional labor, told me when I asked her about positive-environment provisions such as T-Mobile’s. But Grandey cautions that it is incredibly difficult to impose positivity from the top and actually exert a positive effect. “When anything feels forced or externally controlled, it doesn’t tend to be as beneficial as when it’s coming from the self,” she said. “The irony is, when you’re trying to get people to do something positive, you can’t do it. Once it’s required, it’s fake and forced.” What you create instead is a negative backlash. “It feels like Big Brother.”

So it turns out that enforcing a generalized positivity can create problems in the realm of psychological motivation as well as in the legal realm. The issue of how to encourage workplace positivity raises another problem, which is the possibility of suppressing freedom of expression.

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Category(s):Happiness, Workplace Issues

Source material from The New Yorker

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