Career SkillsLessons on Leadership

How “Good Vibes Only” Can Create Toxic Work Environments

By Jacquelyn Adams

We are, as people, such an interesting conundrum. We talk about authenticity in the workplace, and then in the next moment, we put up a “good vibes only” decoration in our workspace. Is there anything less genuine than a perpetually happy person? Or more exhausting? Sure, no one wants to work with an office full of Eyeores, but perhaps we can work on creating an authentic balance between that and creating happiness fatigue.

Let’s explore what it looks like to have a positive workplace that still allows authenticity in our vibes.

Prepare for the bad

One of my go-to sayings is, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” (It is tricky to attribute that quote to any one person, since many people have had their slight variation on the same phrase). The bad news with good vibes only is that it can leave little room for pondering and preparing for the worst. And the moments when the worst occurs, or even anything less than the best, we can be left in a bind by these unforeseen circumstances.

Cultivate trust

Additionally, some people can pressure us as leaders to project positivity. And while there is merit to creating an optimistic atmosphere, as recently noted in an article inspired by Bob Iger’s insights, it cannot stray into the “good vibes only” territory. If we constantly walk around seeing the half-full glass as full, then employees will come to feel a constant level of uncertainty. It can have the exact opposite of its intended effect. Our employees stop trusting us as we strive to make even bad news seem good. Then in those moments where there is genuine, exciting news to report, we aren’t trusted, as employees seek the real truth surrounding the situation. Once trust is damaged, it’s a mess.

Don’t force happiness

And let’s say it out loud for the people in the back: you can’t force others to have fun and be happy. I have seen people attempt this a few different ways, and it almost always has the opposite effect. Whether it’s a mandatory talent show at the Christmas party (yes, I do have an introvert friend who was subjected to that cruel and unusual punishment) or just the standard “excited, happy” meetings where everyone tries to ignore any bad or concerning news. Trying to force happiness like this drains energy from many people present. We smile, nod and stare at the clock as we count the seconds until we are on parole. So embrace authentic optimism, but don’t turn positivity into a sham.

Leave space for authenticity — including negative vibes

As I said before, we don’t want to work with a bunch of Debby Downers, but everyone has bad days. And some bad days will be more than just bad traffic or a flat tire. There will be days when there is a health or financial scare, a family emergency, or any other serious issue that will not go away overnight. In those moments, being “super excited” about a debatable project is far from authentic and far from healthy. Yes, we will have moments when we need to compartmentalize and put on a brave face to get the job done. Still, we can also cultivate environments where people can be honest and get the space they need to work effectively. This might take some brainstorming, depending on the type of work your business does. Perhaps individuals could do more solo work, take a break from clients and work behind the scenes, work on projects that involve more mellow coworkers instead of the high-energy ones, or even just have time during the day where they can step away, breathe and re-center. Whatever it looks like for your workplace, it might be worth considering giving space for those authentic, bad vibes so that we can maintain authentic, healthy workplaces.

Phew! We did it. We wandered through those tricky trenches of good vibes and made it out the other side. While fueled by good intentions, focusing only the good can undercut authenticity, drain energy, and damage trust. It is not an easy balancing act as we try to pick an even path through good vibes and authenticity. We will often fall into the ditch on one side or the other. All we can do is to strive each day to re-evaluate and keep moving forward toward a positive and genuine workplace.


Jacquelyn Adams

Jacquelyn Adams, founder and CEO of Ristole, uses her column to delve into the wild world of leadership. Whether the article is about her days as a Peace Corp volunteer, exploring corporate training, or even grabbing lunch at Chipotle — she will come out with a story and her “top tips.” As she passionately believes in leveraging her platform to share others’ voices, her column welcomes guest bloggers to create a fuller and more diverse pool of experiences for her readership. So, welcome to “Lessons on Leadership” where you never know what the next article will hold: online networking advice, guidelines for creating a joyful workplace, or even puppies. Just keep reading to discover what’s next!

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