The Negative Outlook of Mandatory Positivity

In late April, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that a provision in T-Mobile’s employee handbook violated its employees’ rights to be unhappy at work:

The document included a clause about positivity, reading, in part, “[e]mployees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management.” … The NLRB’s ruling … said that requiring employees to maintain a “positive work environment” is too restrictive, as the workplace can sometimes get contentious. You can’t keep your employees from arguing. The key here is recognizing that being positive at work is good for business, but what’s good for business is not always good for labor. The NLRB says that workers have a right to express negativity at work because they have a right to be unhappy with their jobs.

At the time, Workforce‘s legal expert Jon Hyman derided the ruling as another gross overreach by the board: “Translation? Good luck writing a handbook policy that even touches employee communications that will pass muster with the NLRB.” Many employers surely agreed.

But what if the effort the NLRB nixed to enforce a “positive work environment” actually makes the environment worse? At the New Yorker this weekend, Maria Konnikova took a deeper dive into the psychology of why enforcing positivity can easily backfire:

Worrying about whether or not you’re in violation of a feel-good policy and constantly monitoring yourself for slipups takes a mental toll. More than two decades of research suggests that thought suppression, or trying to stifle your initial impulses in favor of something else, can result in mental strain and may also impair other types of thinking—memory, self-control, problem solving, motivation, perceptiveness. When we are actively monitoring ourselves, our mental energy for other things suffers. The result is not only a less-than-positive work environment but also workers who are less-than-optimally productive. In other words, it’s bad business.

Such behavior-limiting regulations may inhibit thinking and sap initiative and drive. In 2004, the psychologists Myeong-Gu Seo, Lisa Feldman Barrett, and Jean Bartunek posited a connection between employees’ emotional experience in the workplace and their resulting levels of motivation. According to their model, our feelings affect behavior along a continuum between, on one end, something they term “generativeness” (that is, how likely you are to explore something that may end up having a good result, if doing so involves risk) and, on the other, “defensiveness” (when you are focussed on avoiding negative outcomes, forgoing opportunities in the process). It’s a concept akin to what the Columbia University psychologist Tory Higgins calls promotion and prevention—that is, the decision to work toward something or to direct your energy toward avoiding something else. When we are constantly monitoring our behavior, we tend to be on guard and act defensively. We tend to prevent rather than to promote.

Sometimes, trying to get employees to be happy about something—or look like they are—is counterproductive. Most organizations today are undergoing rapid, major organizational changes that many employees are just not going to be very enthusiastic about. But as we’ve found in our research on what determines the success or failure of change, employees don’t need to like it, they just need to understand what it is and why it’s happening. Trying to get employees “on board” with a tough change can be a waste of time—worse, it can engender resentment and suspicion among employees. The fear among managers that unhappiness automatically means change resistance and failure often results in executive communications that sound a lot like this: “You will be happy at work and you will like it!”

On the contrary, if employee discontent can be corralled into a real dialog it can be very valuable. At a meeting last year we heard how one organization was actually trying to figure this out. They had a major diversity and inclusion initiative underway and were seeing negative things about the initiative on the company’s intranet; while they were surprised at the intensity of the pushback, they made sure to engage in a public dialog on these employees’ concerns.

This NLRB ruling also gets at a broader truth about collaboration. Condoning a negative or hostile work environment is clearly not the intent of the ruling, but it does recognize (intentionally or not) that collaborative work is messy and there can be helpful conflict. I’m reminded of what one head of HR told us about how their company harnesses conflict to drive collaboration:

We look at it from a constructive conflict perspective. To leverage the diversity present in a group, there is an inherent conflict that takes place that has to be tabled, because everyone has a point of view that can strengthen the decision-making process. We need to put the lid on the pressure cooker and let those different points of view enrich each other in a collaborative process. Through that, we can then deal with things we couldn’t solve on our own.