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Are Positive Workplaces Bad For Us?

Are Positive Workplaces Bad For Us?

BY Michelle McQuaid

If your organization asked you to help maintain a positive work environment, how would you respond?  Would you feel stifled, burned or unable to be authentic? Or would you feel energized, engaged and optimistic about the culture that was trying to be created?

Recently the union representing T-Mobile employees contested an employee handbook clause that read: Employees are expected to maintain a positive working relationship with internal and external customers clients, co-workers and management. Their concern was that if employees are discontent they need to be able to freely air that displeasure. And the U.S. National Labor Relations Board ruled in their favor.

But does maintaining a positive work environment, mean we can’t speak honestly and openly with others?

“Not at all,” said Professor Kim Cameron, Professor of Management and Organizations in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan when I interviewed him recently. “Honest, straightforward feedback given in a no-nonsense and supportive manner has been found to be immeasurably more effective than harsh or blunt criticism in three critical ways: It motivates performance, is less likely to be misinterpreted, and uplifts rather crushing employees.

“Likewise maintaining a positive work environment doesn’t mean over-emphasizing soft, touchy-feely, smiley-face, saccharine-sweet, cohesive activities at the expense of the hard-nosed, competitive and challenging aspects of business,” he explained. “For an environment to be positive, it needs to be well-rounded.”

Given negative environments that induce hostility and provoke anxiety have been found to lower productivity, performance, creativity and engagement, whilst positive work environments seem to enable greater productivity, lower turnover, and better health outcomes, Kim believes that despite the T-Mobile case our workplaces will continue to become more positive over time.

So how can you help to build a well-rounded positive environment in your workplace?

Here are three positive leadership practices Kim recommends based on his research:

  • Deliver constructive and candid feedback – If you want to implement more positive communication, the data shows that you must do so sincerely and authentically — otherwise it can have the reverse effect. Take every opportunity you can to give people feedback on their strengths, their unique contributions and help them to see where they are performing at their best. Use examples and be as specific as you can.

When you need to address a negative event try to stay objective. Describe the problematic situation (rather than evaluating it), identify objective consequences or your personal feelings associated with it (rather than placing blame), and suggest and ask for acceptable alternatives (rather than arguing about who is right or at fault).

  • Value contribution not just achievement – When you value contribution goals (those that benefit others) over achievement goals (those that benefit yourself) researchers have found that you are more likely to experience higher levels of interpersonal trust, more supportive relationships, more meaning in your work and better performance.

Giving, contributing and supporting others is what enables us to flourish and yet almost all of our workplace motivation systems are based on the principal of receipt – if you achieve your goals, then we’ll give you something. But it turns out that if you give people the chance to contribute, their performance is actually more likely to improve. So when the University of Michigan staff excel they are given a plus one award – a recognition of their own efforts and a chance to award somebody else as well.

  • Develop positive energy networks – positive energy is characterized by a feeling of aliveness, arousal, vitality and zest. It’s a life-giving force that researchers have found allows you to perform, to create and to persist and unlock your resources and capacities. Rather than just focusing on physical, psychological or emotional energy – which become depleted when used – try to prioritize relational energy which actually increases as it’s exercised and is four times more likely to predict your success, than power or knowledge.

You can do this by being a problem solver, rather than a problem creator. Making sure you’re fully present during your interactions with other, so they truly feel that they matter to you. Help other people thrive by investing in their improvement and where you can recruit, recognize and reward people for being positive energizers.

What can you do to make your workplace more positive?

For more of Kim’s research click here or grab a copy of his book Practicing Positive Leadership.

This interview was produced in partnership with the Canadian Positive Psychology Association and the 3rd Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology. For more information please visit

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