Happiness is not a mandate. It’s aspirational.

It is official: employers can’t force you to be happy.

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board passed a new rule in April 2016, which says companies can no longer mandate that employees maintain a positive attitude at work.

What brought this on? Union workers contesting a clause in T-Mobile’s handbook – “employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management.” NLRB says, the phrase ‘positive work environment’ is restrictive, as the workplace can sometimes get contentious. You can’t keep your employees from expressing displeasure, as that would mean curtailing their basic rights!

However, the desire to have a positive work environment is not unfound. Multiple research studies show that happier employees are in fact 12% more productive, and 37% more satisfied with their work. They are also better collaborators, and tend to be more effective at problem solving. Thus, perks aimed at making employees happy, like unlimited leaves, free snacks, game rooms and birthday celebrations, are welcome. But, in lieu of all this, employees cannot be expected to be ‘relentlessly positive all the time’.

Exploring NLRB’s verdict further, we gather that joyful workplaces are not an absolute. There needs to be room for candid conversations. Researcher Emma Seppala, Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism, says, instead of blunt criticism, managers can create space for constructive feedback. It motivates performance, is less likely to be misinterpreted, and uplifts rather than crush employees. She suggests the following rules of thumb, to help facilitate honest conversations:

Emphasize collaboration and commonalities: Quoting Seppala, “Try to stay objective when you speak about a negative event. Describe the problematic situation (rather than evaluating it), identify your personal feelings associated with it (rather than placing blame); and suggest acceptable alternatives (rather than arguing about who is right or at fault).”

Communicate strengths and ‘best self’ demonstrations: Since negative is stronger for our brains than positive, we need to constantly accentuate what is working well, to be able to minimize the effect of what is not working well. The ideal ratio for this is 5:1. Effective conversations include five statements that are appreciative and encouraging, for every one statement that is contradictory or disapproving. This helps maintain morale.

Bottom-line: Express unhappiness in the context of positivity. Know that it’s momentary and can be resolved. We aren’t aiming for brutal candor, or what Wall Street Journal refers to as ‘front-stabbing’. Val DiFebo, CEO of Deutsch Advertising says, “I think it’s actually more big-hearted and caring to be confrontational, than going behind someone’s back.” True, back-stabbing is a no-no. The key to success lies in the ‘how’ of confrontation.

What are you going to do to make confrontation healthy?

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