October 22, 2012
Every office has a person who has taken a few too many drags on the pep pipe. A manager or co-worker whose sunny disposition can cloud an otherwise delightfully pessimistic day.
I'm talking about the patrons of positivity, the bright-siders, the people who see every glass as half full and every mistake as an "error-portunity."
You don't have to be like me — a lifelong subscriber to American Cynics Illustrated — to find these folks grating or even to ask whether they are detrimental to the workplace.
A recent note from a reader makes a good argument that they are. It described a boss who is an aphorism-spouting optimism addict. His insistence on putting a positive spin on everything has workers afraid to express their concerns or frustrations, unclear on where they stand with the boss and distrustful of each other.
"I'm baffled and annoyed by his rosiness," the reader wrote.
Barbara Ehrenreich understands this. She wrote a book called "Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America," a searing takedown of the "think positive"-ization of America. She writes that most Americans were introduced to the concept of achievement-through-optimism by Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 book "The Power of Positive Thinking."
Ehrenreich wrote: "Norman Vincent Peale grasped this as well as anyone: the work of Americans, and especially of its ever-growing white-collar proletariat, is in no small part work that is performed on the self in order to make that self more acceptable and even likable to employers, clients, co-workers and potential customers. Positive thinking had ceased to be just a balm for the anxious or a cure for the psychosomatically distressed. It was beginning to be an obligation imposed on all American adults."
And here I wanted to blame it all on motivational posters that say things such as "Actualize Your Inner Eagle!"
But they are simply part of the think-positive, self-help industry that has left us with people who think they can manage real workplace problems with little more than platitudes. This is, to put it kindly, dumb.
"Everyone has taken the idea of happiness too far," said Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University and author of "Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life." "The research doesn't say create a happy work environment day in and day out. It just says that, overall, you want people satisfied at work. But there are many paths to get there, and one of them is to make people feel engaged and challenged by what they're doing."
Kashdan noted that there's a difference between happiness and feeling energized by or enthused about your work.
Work is always going to be work. It's a labor. Sometimes it's good; sometimes it's a drag. But if your boss and co-workers create an environment where you feel challenged, appreciated and engaged, you'll likely be happy more often than not.
Kashdan said: "As a boss, do you support people's autonomy? Do they feel a sense of belonging? Do they believe that you'll still like them even if they screw up? Do they feel a sense of competence? These are psychological needs that cut across humanity."
It's all about being honest, which is what workers want from their bosses and colleagues.
"As opposed to assuming that people want positivity infused in every aspect of the job, ask your employees what they want," Kashdan said. "Most people want to grow and be challenged, and a good manager provides feedback throughout the year and isn't afraid to tell people some things that make them uncomfortable."
And if someone just wants the rah-rah pep talk?
"If they tell you that they only want to hear about roses and fairy tales, then work with them in a nice, appreciative, inquisitive way and figure out why they wouldn't want feedback that could improve their performance and help them move up. This could be someone who's so scared of making a mistake that they'll never have aspirational goals."
In her book, Ehrenreich notes that eschewing positive thinking doesn't mean you're adopting negative thinking: "The alternative to both is to try to get outside of ourselves and see things 'as they are,' or as uncolored as possible by our own feelings and fantasies, to understand that the world is full of both danger and opportunity."
To distill this down to my own lowbrow level of thinking: Keep it real. Don't see that I made a mistake and then tell me that mistake was brilliantly executed. Don't address my conflict with a co-worker as a chance to come together and embrace. Tell me who's right or wrong and tell us both to knock it off!
If I do something well, tell me. If the team's doing great, tell us.
But take down that ridiculous poster with the soaring eagle — before I actualize my inner demons and do it for you.
TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at firstname.lastname@example.org, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.
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