“Lola, why aren’t you smiling?”
“Well………. it’s…….. Monday, it’s 8:30am, and I’m on a Zoom call… Oh, and you’re one hour ahead…”
When I think back to this instance, I’m a little annoyed I felt I had to explain myself. There I was thinking I was being a great employee by even agreeing to do the call before my work day officially starts, and the first thing that is noticed is that I’m not smiling? I came off the call feeling minimised and like my efforts didn’t truly matter. Not the most encouraging or best way to start the day.
Not smiling doesn’t mean I’m thinking or feeling anything in that moment. It simply means, I’m not smiling. Why is this even being brought up? At the time, I felt the question was extremely inappropriate, as well as an unnecessary and demeaning expectation — especially as a woman — especially as a black woman. Am I just here to smile for you? Why is this important to you? Do you need me to smile so you feel good or better about yourself? Do you need me to smile so you feel more comfortable?
There was a time when showing up with your false, “professional” self was the norm, and there were nuances around what this looked like, but the world is changing. Concepts around being a good or bad employee are shifting with more emphasis being placed on impact and being candid.
What is happiness, anyway?
We’ve all got ideas in our mind about what ‘happy’ is or looks like, but what is the real meaning?
Cambridge Dictionary: feeling, showing, or causing pleasure or satisfaction
Dictionary.com: delighted, pleased, or glad, [as] over a particular thing
Merriem Webster: feeling pleasure and enjoyment because of your life, situation, etc.
Is this a realistic state of being, particularly when at work or when attending a meeting? Is it possible to be in this mode 100% of the time? Should we expect our colleagues to be? Is this a fair expectation or a burden?
Do you know the people who I worry about the most? The always-happy ones. They walk around masking their true feelings with their smiles and happy demeanour, pros at appearing to be exemplary employees, always positive, always jumping into help, constantly lifting (and often carrying) their team with their energy. Sounds great, right?
Well, don’t forget that life is all about balance. When the scales are tipped too far one way, there is an imbalance and the person holding the scales suffers the most. When you spend so much time emotionally investing in other people, what is left for yourself?
When someone is always happy, always on, they are not accepting, processing, dealing and effectively managing the full gamut of their feelings, and this may not have an outwardly impact when you interact with them, but believe me, it is slowly eroding their inner-happiness and spirit. Where do these negative feelings go? They don’t just not exist. We’d be naïve to believe they simply vanish into thin air. They have to go somewhere? Sometimes they stay in the body, having negative effects mentally, physically or both. Sometimes they are pushed on to their closest relationships. Sometimes the feelings come out whenever they’re alone - and that can be a very dangerous place.
Is it Safe?
We tell people they can bring their whole selves to work, but do we understand what this truly means? What this looks like? What this requires of you, as a colleague or manager? In order to be your whole and true self, you need to feel safe enough to be that, safe enough to falter, safe enough to feel unhappy or sad or frustrated or angry…. or simply not smile.
Being always-happy, the positive one, always smiling, is a heavy crown and burden to carry. Imagine what it takes to wake up, and be this person every day. I’m exhausted just thinking about it. It’s not natural to appear to be happy all the time, and it’s not sustainable.
It also creates an unrealistic standard and perception of what being a good employee is. We don’t go to work to simply sit around and smile at each other all day, pushing out love and positivity from our chests like Care Bears.
We go to work to get sh*t done… ideally excellent sh*t, epic sh*t, and in order for this to happen, diversity in thought and conflicts are necessary.
When a culture of smiles and positivity is promoted over candour, the team is held back. If you cannot be open about your opinions, problems aren’t addressed and don’t get fixed. These problems deepen and will eventually lead to team or even, company failure.
I urge you to look at the culture you promote within your own team; through your words and actions. Who do you exemplify, and why? What behaviours do you reward? Do you tend to lean more towards results or behaviours? Why? How do specific behaviours impact how you feel about yourself? How can you better manage your bias and feelings around them?
If you truly wish to build and cultivate a diverse workforce, you need to understand that diversity is not simply sexual orientation or skin colour. It also comes in a range of mental capacities, personalities and demeanours, and all must feel accepted, welcome and valued. This diversity of thought and approach is what gives teams the winning edge. It also takes the pressure off your always-on, always-happy team members, enabling them to be more authentic which in turn prevents them burning out from their own positivity.
There is a lot of value in those employees who appear to not be tap dancing with a smile, 24/7. Often they see things from a realistic lens, and if you’re willing to listen, like, really listen, you just might learn something and actually fix something.
A smile is just a smile. It is not a representation of how productive or impactful or kind or even, happy, someone is. If a smile has so much weight for you, I suggest you take the time to understand why.
Take the time to know and humanise the people you work with, especially the ones you don’t naturally click with. Give people the room to know and feel their feelings — all of them — are valid. This will make them much more comfortable and validated as a member of the team, which will in turn positively impact their real happiness.
So pull in the not-so-smiley colleague — don’t avoid them, get to know them and understand their perspective. By avoiding or dismissing them, you minimise their voice and self-worth. It makes them defensive and feel they are not valued, which in turn has an impact on their mental and, sometimes, physical health.
Check in on your smiley colleague. Grab a coffee and encourage them to be more open about how they truly feel. Ask them how things are going, what their real opinions are. When they say something negative, they may try to backtrack, let them know it’s ok to be honest and sit with them in that space for some time, so they feel safe.
Don’t avoid the uncomfortable, this is where we all will find the most growth.
Much of what I’ve touched on in this article falls under the concept of Toxic Positivity. You can find out more about this subject here.