Fake Positivity Can be Toxic to the Workplace


by Justin Reynolds on Nov 1, 2016 8:00:00 AM

In a perfect world, all of your employees would be thrilled to show up to work each morning. They’d thoroughly love their jobs, and they’d strive to increase their productivity every day. Everyone would get along, and you wouldn’t have to worry about micromanaging employees or dealing with two team members who hate each other. You could sit back with your feet on your desk and brainstorm ways to grow your business.

How does that sound?

Unfortunately, managing a team is never that easy — it’s a lot more nuanced. Not only are managers charged with maximizing team productivity, they also need to make sure that morale stays strong and employees get along with one another.

While it’s safe to say managers are well aware of what we can consider “problem employees” — those who are more adversarial than the average worker and don’t listen to directions too well — there’s another kind of worker who may be bringing down the team without you even realizing it. Let’s call this worker the false-positive employee, the person who is all smiles on the surface but is constantly seeking approval and validation from their peers and superiors.

Why Are These Kinds of Employees So Toxic?

For starters, studies show that forcing yourself to smile when you’re not happy can actually lead to “emotional exhaustion and withdrawal” from your work, according to a recent DailyMail article.

What’s more, as the Wall Street Journal notes, workers are much more likely to fake being happy when they’re in the company of their superiors. Rather than paying attention to what’s going on, employees who act unnaturally upbeat are simply unable to invest enough of their brainpower on what’s actually being discussed in a meeting. They’re more concerned with their boss noticing how positive they appear to be.

On the other hand, when workers meet with their peers or subordinates, they’re much less likely to fake positivity — which encourages them to take risks and think outside the box. While a false-positive employee might keep ideas close to the chest for fear of disapproval, those who wear their true emotions on their sleeves are more eager to share their thoughts — no matter how they’re received.

Maintaining a facade of positivity makes employees less happy. The constant need for validation also holds employees back in a variety of ways. For example, workers who fake smiles every day spend too much time wondering what their bosses and coworkers think of them. This holds them back by distracting them from their work and absorbing time that could be otherwise spent brainstorming new ideas, learning new things, or helping coworkers out.

How to Fix the Problem

No realistic manager expects their employees to be completely happy at work 100% of the time. We all have stressful days. We all wake up on the wrong side of the bed every now and again. Sometimes, customers overreact and act unprofessionally. Can you reasonably expect workers to be viciously berated and respond with a smile every single time it happens?

Wearing a fake smile does not cause negative thoughts or emotions to disappear automatically. The good news is that if you think you’re dealing with a false-positive employee, there are a number of things you can do to improve their mood and, by extension, the morale of your entire team, including:

01. Communicate regularly

Employees don’t want to be kept in the dark about what’s going on with their company or what’s expected of them at work. The easiest way to make sure that everyone is on the same page is by making it a priority to communicate with each of your employees on a regular basis. Hold a 1:1 meeting — on occasion or once a week — so that you can sync up and let your workers know exactly where things stand. That way, there shouldn’t be any confusion about what’s expected to be done.

02. Be reasonable

Have your employees’ backs. While you should expect your workers to maintain a professional demeanor at all times, there may be exceptions to the rule (to a certain extent). If a customer is making unreasonable demands on your employee or treating them with lots of hostility, don’t flip out if they are unable to remain in a perfectly happy mood. They’re human, after all. So long as they’re not doing anything egregious, don’t hold it against them if they’re upset by mistreatment every now and again.

03. Offer flexible working arrangements

Studies have shown that employees who are able to work from home or are offered flexible schedules are happier than their peers who are required to show up at the office every day during the same hours. If your company has a strict in-the-office policy, reconsider whether it makes sense to offer flexible working arrangements. A day at home each week could do wonders for your false-positive employee’s attitude.

04. Distribute work evenly

According to our Employee Engagement Report, 70% of workers feel as though there simply isn’t enough time in the week to take care of all of their job responsibilities. There’s a chance that one of your false-positive employees is behaving that way because they feel as though they’re overworked and they want to remain in good standing. Take a look around your office at the workloads you’ve given your staff. Make sure they’re manageable and fair for all workers.

05. Utilize anonymous pulse surveys

Even if you schedule regular 1:1 meetings with each of your employees, depending on their personalities, some may be reluctant to share their true feelings with you for fear of backlash. That being the case, you may want to give anonymous pulse surveys a try. These surveys — which can be given on a weekly or monthly basis — allow employees to share what’s on their mind without worrying about making their bosses upset. Armed with that data, you’re able to make the adjustments and improvements your employees want.

Don’t let a false-positive employee get under the skin of the rest of your team. If you want to take your business to the next level, your staff needs to be honest with themselves and the rest of the team. By constantly asking your employees what they’re thinking about, being flexible, and not playing any favorites, odds are you won’t have to deal with a false-positive employee — making your job a whole lot easier and your team that much stronger.


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