We’ve talked before about how workplace policies that require constant positivity on the part of employees tend to be counterproductive, attracting unwelcome scrutiny from regulators while stressing out employees and hindering constructive conflict. As technology makes it ever more possible to monitor employees’ emotional states, these new possibilities have opened up a new debate regarding how much sense it makes to try and manage employee happiness, with critics saying such efforts infringe on individual liberty to an unacceptable extent.
One employer that puts a premium on positivity is Trader Joe’s, the discount grocery chain, where a former employee has filed an unfair labor practices charge alleging that he was dismissed for his attitude not being “genuinely” positive. The New York Times‘ Noam Scheiber discussed the case late last week:
According to an unfair labor practices charge filed on Thursday with a National Labor Relations Board regional office, Thomas Nagle, a longtime employee of the Trader Joe’s store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was repeatedly reprimanded because managers judged his smile and demeanor to be insufficiently “genuine.” He was fired in September for what the managers described as an overly negative attitude.
The morale issues appear concentrated at some of the company’s largest and busiest stores, including one where a union is trying to organize. Tensions have been heightened, according to several employees, by the pressure to remain upbeat and create a “Wow customer experience,” which is defined in the company handbook as “the feelings a customer gets about our delight that they are shopping with us.” …
The ongoing revolution in employee monitoring technology is making it possible to learn more about employees’ behaviors, habits, health, and even emotions than ever before. Between these new capabilities and the growing understanding of the connection between employee happiness, engagement, and performance, the urge to monitor and manage employees’ happiness isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
But should employers be in the business of trying to manipulate their employees’ emotions? The Economist argues “no”:
Companies would be much better off forgetting wishy-washy goals like encouraging contentment. They should concentrate on eliminating specific annoyances, such as time-wasting meetings and pointless memos. Instead, they are likely to develop ever more sophisticated ways of measuring the emotional state of their employees. Academics are already busy creating smartphone apps that help people keep track of their moods, such as Track Your Happiness and Moodscope. It may not be long before human-resource departments start measuring workplace euphoria via apps, cameras and voice recorders.
The average employee spends about four hours a week getting back and forth from work. Survey data shows that for most employees, this is the most dreaded part of the work week. Cari Romm at Science of Us has a suggestion for how to make it a little more bearable: take a nap during your commute:
Step one, figure out how long your train ride takes from the moment you step on till the moment you exit. Step two, use that number to calculate what time you’ll be arriving, and set a phone alarm for a few minutes before then. Step three, stick some headphones in your ears and snooze away, unburdened by worry that you’ll miss your stop. (Note: Train riders only, for obvious reasons. Drivers, you’re still stuck with a fully conscious ride to work.)
The beauty of the commuting nap is that it takes one of the most hated ways to spend time (commuting) and replaces it with one of the most beloved (sleeping). It’s difficult to overstate just how much a long commute — especially one spent entirely awake — can negatively impact a person’s quality of life: People who suffer through it each day tend to have more stress, lower well-being, and even rockier marriages; commuting beat out house cleaning and even work itself in a survey of the most happiness-draining activities.
For those of us who commute by train or bus and can manage it, taking a nap does seem like a good idea. Estimates are that 50 to 75 million people in the US are sleep deprived, and this has real consequences: It hurts performance, lowers our emotional intelligence and makes us less effective leaders.
For the millions of us who drive to work, however, the chance to nap will continue to elude us until driverless cars come along to take us to work every day. In the meantime, as Romm also mentions, the Association for Psychological Science highlights a new study suggesting another way to get the most out of our commutes:
At the Harvard Business Review, Lewis Garrad and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic argue in the affirmative, positing that very high levels of engagement can actually hurt organizations by making it more difficult for them to break away from the status quo when necessary:
When it comes to engagement, it is possible that proud and motivated workers resist new ways of doing things because change seems counterintuitive, or even heretic, to them. In line, research shows that people who are optimistic about their performance stop trying to get better whereas frustrated and dissatisfied people tend to find creative breakthroughs when incentivized and supported in the right way. Thus the danger for leaders is that an engaged workforce becomes complacent or arrogant if it isn’t self-critical enough. Unsurprisingly, the last 30 years have been littered with companies that were deeply proud of what they were doing but not dissatisfied or paranoid enough to stay ahead of the competition — Nokia, Kodak and Yahoo! are just a few examples. Needless to say, progress is generally driven by people who reject the status quo and are dissatisfied enough to seek to change it.
The authors also warn that highly-engaged employees can be subject to burnout and work-life balance problems, and that a culture of engagement gives an unfair edge to employees with optimistic and extroverted personality types, while undervaluing the input of negative thinkers whose pessimism can often be helpful:
No, employees never look like this (RawPixel/Shutterstock)
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: