Are you happy? I'm happy 🤡
The cult of forced positivity at work.
I have a good friend – let’s call her Winifred (because why not) – who is great at her job, regularly works overtime, and always makes herself available to answer the team’s endless questions. During her last performance review, Winifred was eager to hear how she could improve (and receive some praise, let’s be honest) – but the only critical feedback her boss gave her was that she needed to be more enthusiastic.
Did you hear my jaw drop?
Inspired by Winifred, today we’re going to be talking about the cult(ure) of forced positivity at work and how to build human workplaces.
Suffering in Silence
A common myth about mental health is that it has no place at work. Negative emotions like sadness, anger, and anxiety are unprofessional emotions that we should try our best to suppress in the workplace.
Well, I hate to break it to you but we’re all human, we’ve all got our “stuff,” and it’s going to show up at work whether we like it or not.
As author Susan Cain wrote in a recent article for The Atlantic:
Sadness is a central part of our lives, yet it’s typically ignored at work, hurting employees and managers alike.
Over 100 studies have shown that when we experience depression, anxiety, or low psychological well-being, our job performance suffers. Depression and anxiety have also been shown to be contagious, affecting our coworkers’ performance and well-being.
So, what can we do about it?
It’s Okay Not to Be Okay: Building Compassionate Cultures
A healthy workplace is one where people feel included and empowered to do their best work. It’s also one where people feel safe enough to be open, honest, and vulnerable about their struggles – whether they’re going through a tough breakup, experiencing the death of a loved one, or just having a bad day.
I know that “compassion” might be an icky word for some organizations – but the vast majority of employees feel that empathy and compassion are undervalued in business. Many of them also report that the level of empathy in their organizations is insufficient.
Susan Cain explains why this might be:
In private discussions I’ve had over the years with executives and managers, they’ve raised one recurring objection to these ideas: If everyone is encouraged to air difficult feelings, won’t this sap workers of their ability to get things done and make offices depressing?
The simple answer is no. Compassion can actually improve performance.
And let’s get one thing straight: Compassion is not about kumbaya and sharing circles and delving into each other’s childhood trauma1. In an interview on WorkLife with Adam Grant, Professor of Organizational Behavior Sally Maitlis explains that it takes competence to show compassion:
“Compassion competence” consists of a sort of emergent pattern of collective noticing in this generous way – collective feeling and collective acting to alleviate someone's suffering and to do this in a customized way. I would start by showing it to my team and by encouraging people to listen to each other, to notice when someone's suffering, to interpret that suffering generously, and to bring to a conversation, “how could we help this person?”
Sad Days, Not Sick Days: Practical Solutions
Organizational psychologist Adam Grant popularized the idea of “sad days, not sick days” – offering paid time off for mental health the same way it exists for physical health.
Here are some more practical ideas to build a culture of compassion:
For employers & HR:
Take Fridays off (or do No Meeting Fridays2) to give employees a chance to recharge.
Offer free, private counseling sessions.
Give your employees an annual health and wellness budget.
Organize soft skills training (especially for managers, as research shows that employees expect their managers to care about their emotional well-being).
For managers & employees:
Dedicate the first 10 minutes of your team meeting to check in and see how people are doing (or organize weekly or monthly check-ins).
Praise your coworkers in front of others.
Acknowledge your (and your coworkers’) emotions. For example, if you notice one of your colleagues being unusually quiet during a tense meeting, acknowledge their emotions (“you seemed quiet during the meeting, how are you doing?”) instead of commenting on the situation (“that meeting was rough”).
In his research, Grant found that compassion doesn’t just benefit the receivers. It also creates feelings of pride and gratitude in the people showing compassion.
What Can Leaders Do?
Ultimately, most of us won’t feel comfortable showing vulnerability unless our leaders do. Grant says:
A final step for building a culture of compassion is for leaders to show their own vulnerability. When leaders model that it’s okay to struggle, that makes it easier for others to ask for help.
As people grapple with mental health challenges, we need more managers giving permission to call in sad, not just sick. We need more workplaces to be flexible and support mental health. We need more leaders to show that it’s okay to not be okay all the time.
One of my favorite examples of compassionate leadership is when Todd McKinnon, the CEO & co-founder of software company Okta, asked all of his 3,500 employees to email their holiday plans to him because he was so worried about burnout within the company. (Okta also increased its investment in Modern Health, a digital mental health and wellness service, and Headspace, a meditation app, to give employees more support during the pandemic.)3
To conclude, I shall again defer to the wonderful Adam Grant:
Normalizing struggle reveals our humanity. And responding with care elevates our humanity.
Take It Away 💃
Mental health issues and negative emotions don’t belong at work = MYTH!
When we’re going through a tough time – whether it’s depression, anxiety, or other forms of low psychological well-being – our performance suffers (shocker!).
The solution is to build compassionate cultures. Not only will this make us all better humans, but it can also improve performance!
We can all cultivate compassion within our organizations through policy-level changes like offering free counseling sessions or enacting “No Meeting Fridays,” as well as through individual actions, like scheduling regular check-ins with coworkers or praising your coworkers in front of others.
Leaders have an important role to play in building compassionate organizations. When leaders show their vulnerability, it makes it easier for others to as well.
DEI Win of the Week ⚖️
This week’s win in diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) goes to Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first black female justice to serve on the United States Supreme Court.
I know it sounds soppy but I’m excited to be alive at this moment in time – to bear witness to this amazing milestone – and I look forward to seeing the different perspective Judge Jackson will bring to future Supreme Court rulings.
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Or, as I like to call it, just another Saturday.
Or Mondays or Tuesdays or Wednesdays or Thursdays.
Upon reading this newsletter to proofread and give me feedback (as he always does – thanks, Joel!), my tech-knowledgeable boyfriend prudently pointed out that Okta has recently experienced a security breach and might not have disclosed the full extent of the damage. So, I guess the takeaway here is that every company is a mixed bag. My bubble is burst.