The case for being grumpy at work

Apr 21, 2017, 01:00 PM

On my birthday this year, my coworkers planned an elaborate surprise. When I came into work, several dozen colleagues had dressed up as me, donning my trademark accessories: a flannel shirt, a baseball cap—and a scowl. There are two takeaways from this anecdote. The first is that I have truly thoughtful and quirky colleagues. The second is that my habitually grumpy demeanor is so noticeable in the workplace that it has become a hallmark of my persona. Part of me is a little bit embarrassed by this. After all, I grew up, like so many junior employees, understanding that the way to get and keep a good job was through hard work and unflappable politeness. I can’t remember who first expressed the idea that I should endeavor always to come to work with a smile, but it feels very much in keeping with a whole host of social mores that young people—especially women—are taught from an early age. For several years, I bought into the idea that emotional honesty was a quality better left at home. But as my career progressed, and with it my self-confidence, I began to realize that holding in my true feelings was both exhausting and unnecessary. I’m not saying that people should be rude or mean to one another at work, of course. But I do feel that there is something sinister about the corporate cult of positivity.

Employers may think a room full of smiling employees is a sign of a productive, successful office. But research shows that forcing workers to appear more pleasant and more cheerful than they actually feel can lead to a whole host of negative consequences—from emotional exhaustion to withdrawal. And women in particular suffer from the expectation that they should constantly demonstrate happiness. In 2017, there’s no reason for us to grin and bear it. For one thing, researchers from Munich’s Technische Universitaet have found that women were less likely to be promoted to management positions if they appeared too cheerful. (Welcome to another great example of the catch-22s that women face in the workplace everyday.) And research has also shown that a pessimistic outlook can lead to higher productivity, fewer mistakes, and better communication skills. In other words: Grumpy workers of the world, unite.

If it seems like your bosses have been inordinately preoccupied with you and your colleagues’ happiness lately, chances are you’re right. As English sociologist and economist William Davies reveals in his book The Happiness Industry, the modern obsession with workplace positivity is a relatively new phenomenon, spurred by research connecting workers’ productivity and their happiness. In this context, attempting to improve employees’ satisfaction seems like it ought to be a win-win for both workers and managers. But Davies explains that corporate happiness strategies can quickly backfire. “The argument for promoting happiness at work has always been primarily about productivity,” he notes. “Employers seek various ways to boost employee morale and mood, or, if that fails, instruct them on how to behave in a happy way. I think this is more pronounced in America, where optimism and self-belief are almost moral obligations. But it’s not limited to the US.”

Depending on where you work, efforts to boost morale could include everything from offering office employees free ice cream on Fridays to instructing baristas to fake cheerfulness during their early-morning shifts. These shallow and manipulative pathways to happiness will almost certainly fail to make a difference in the long-term. But even the more sophisticated and well-intentioned efforts—like providing technology so workers can work from home easily—can dissolve the important distinctions between work and private life. “I think a good balance can be struck where employers develop genuine sympathy and understanding for the non-work issues that employees face, recognizing that they have a life outside of work,” Davies says. “Employers should try to avoid reducing everything to p...