Trendy startups: Stop making positivity the only acceptable emotion at work

A few years ago, I worked in a place that always wanted their employees to be positive and happy. What this actually means is that they always wanted their employees to act positive and happy. It was a stereotypical Seattle startup with a trendy office space in a trendy neighborhood — you know, the kinds of companies that get parodied on shows like Parks and Rec (think Grizzl corp) and Silicon Valley. This may sound great to some people — but let’s do a quick reality check.

I read an article recently that said that “happiness” comes from the word happenstance — as in, it’s something that just happens and cannot be forced. There are many adages that posit that chasing happiness is the path to despair, and even philosophical arguments dissuading people from chasing it. Absolutely no one is constantly happy, but there are certainly those who are better at acting the part than others. I am not one of those people.

The general vibe at this organization was that 1) You don’t ask questions of management decisions, 2) You never express doubt or negativity, and 3) You are always cheerful and witty. It felt cult-like, and everyone was left wondering whether anyone else also felt controlled, inauthentic, and burned out — or was everyone else really absolutely in love with this company? Now that I am writing this, I’m realizing it was a subtle form of gaslighting.

One of the first red flags I noticed was during the first company meeting I attended. The CEO displayed the words “DOUBT” and “SKEPTICAL” on the screen crossed out with a big red X. As a graduate with degrees in philosophy and psychology, I bring doubt and skepticism everywhere I go — so this immediately made me feel very out of place.

It’s also a really bad idea to ban doubt and skepticism in a startup that is trying to innovate.

Forcing a culture of positivity and yes-manning reduces creativity by making it not okay to express certain emotions. For companies that are pioneering a business, boxing people into one acceptable attitude is extremely restricting and makes it unsafe to express anything outside that norm at work. Being able to be critical or express doubts is key to continuous improvement as well as creativity and innovation.

When issues arise or employees deal with difficult customers, they need to be able to vent and discuss things with their coworkers to obtain validation and a sense of shared experience, which allows them to feel supported and move on.

When employees are forced to constantly act positive and happy, they don’t get to express frustration in a very frustrating job, and this creates a lot of emotional labor and cognitive dissonance. Customer-facing roles are some of the most psychologically taxing already, and insisting upon consistent positivity and yes-manning can quickly lead to burnout, poor job satisfaction, and an intense desire to walk out and never come back.

Another message this organization pushed was that we were there, first and foremost, to make friends and have fun. That was the strongest organizational mission, instead of any visionary goals around the product we were selling. The irony is that out of the 10 months that I worked there, I didn’t make any friends. I believe the falseness of emotion that this job required of it’s employees prevented the more introverted ones from being able to feel connected to anyone in a meaningful way. The lack of diversity of thought that existed meant that I kept my mouth shut because what I had to offer wasn’t wanted.

This was the very first job where I felt like I could not raise my concerns with leaders because then I’d get fired. This is not okay, and not normal (at least for me, I know there are others who are naturally more hesitant than I am at speaking up where this may not be so strange). This was a toxic environment. It felt like I was a Stepford wife except the business version, where everyone seemed nice and cheerful but step one toe out of line and management will turn nasty. (This actually happened when I gave my two weeks’ notice — my manager seemed to take it personally and her demeanor toward me immediately changed.)

So at this job I had to do something I loathe doing: I had to fake it. I faked that I was always in a good mood, and I faked that I loved company. And because of the emotional labor and toll that took, I am sure my productivity and the productivity of my coworkers suffered. But I was quietly searching for jobs, hoping to escape the perfect dystopia of inauthentic cheer and underlying control. And, I had a coaster on my desk that said “My face hurts from pretending to like you,” which helped. :) Thankfully, I haven’t needed that coaster at work ever since.

Writing evidence-based, thought-provoking content to spread knowledge and ideas that help people. I hold an MS I/O Psychology and BA Philosophy.