Requiring Employees To Be Cheerful Isn’t Just Mean, It’s Bad Business

Smile!

Jessica Jones

If you have ever had a boss call you in to have an ominous chat because, in her words, “You don’t seem happy,” you know how scary that kind of sit-down can be. When it happened to me, I had no illusions that my boss really cared about the reasons I was glum; this was, after all, the boss who, for six months, never bothered to learn how to spell my name. What she cared about was that I seemed happy, or rather didn’t, and what she made clear to me in our short conversation was that I needed to put on a better show or clean out my desk.

Most low-wage jobs don’t require employees to grin like Ronald McDonald throughout the day while earning their $7.50 an hour. There’s an understanding, generally, that that would be unfair. It’s called “grunt work” for a reason, right?

On the other hand, some places have a rep for having cheerful employees. Trader Joe’s, for example. Pret a Manger, which is known colloquially as “the Happy Factory.”

But Pret doesn’t mandate that its employees smile. It gives them reason and incentives to.

“Eighty per cent of our managers start as team members,” Wareham says. “If you invest in your people, if you put your absolute focus on that part of your business, then everything else flows. To any small business, I’d say you have to put your money where your mouth is. Don’t have a shiny office, don’t have the lovely Apple Mac computers, don’t do any of that. A traditional company will spend 7% of their turnover on marketing, but we spend 1% and we invest everything in our people.”

Most places, where “team members” are not treated so well, it’s only reasonable to ask employees to show up on time, do what’s expected of them, and act in a civil, polite fashion to customers and coworkers alike. But, you know, this is capitalism, and capitalism does not always care about what’s reasonable.

Well, managers have a new data point to consider: according to the New Yorker, telling workers to act like they’re in an episode of “Barney” every day isn’t just bad for their morale, it’s bad for the bottom line.

Worrying about whether or not you’re in violation of a feel-good policy and constantly monitoring yourself for slipups takes a mental toll. More than two decades of research suggests that thought suppression, or trying to stifle your initial impulses in favor of something else, can result in mental strain and may also impair other types of thinking — memory, self-control, problem solving, motivation, perceptiveness. When we are actively monitoring ourselves, our mental energy for other things suffers. The result is not only a less-than-positive work environment but also workers who are less-than-optimally productive. In other words, it’s bad business. …
A second study, of a hundred and seventy-five salespeople, found the relationship to hold for sales numbers as well: sales were higher in environments with moderate rules, while environments with too few or too many rules suffered. The highest performers of all were those in a moderately regulated environment who also felt a high degree of autonomy, as determined by their responses to a single statement: “My job permits me to decide on my own how to go about doing the work.”

This is maybe a no-brainer? Don’t mandate the appearance of positivity. Give your staff the kind of workplace they can be positive about. After all, your workers don’t want to be sullen anymore than you want them to look sullen. Give your workers the conditions in which to be happy, and everyone wins.