Be positive or else! Would Darth Vader have achieved more by being more emotionally agile?

Editor’s Note: Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashdan are the authors of “The Upside of Your Dark Side.” The opinions expressed in this article are solely theirs.

Story highlights

Bosses set the emotional tone for others at work

Hiring cheerful people doesn't mean companies can sidestep negative emotions at work

Being emotionally agile is key to getting the best from others

Day to day suppression of authentic expression leads to exhaustion

CNN  — 

Isn’t it annoying to interact with smiling automatons at the checkout register?

Not the authentically upbeat type but the drones who follow a rehearsed business script. The idea that employee emotions are an important part of any customer transaction is not a new idea. Thirty years ago scholars began talking about “emotional labor” to describe jobs in which positive attitudes are crucial.

These tend to be high customer contact positions such as flight attendants and hotel desk clerks. Emotional labor is based on the idea that positive emotional displays beget similar reactions in customers and, ultimately, a happier bottom line.

To some extent, this trend toward a focus on positive employee emotions is laudatory. The antiquated command-and-control system is being replaced by a “profit from the positive” attitude.

In the modern era workers feel as entitled to a sense of meaning as they do a paycheck. Companies like Zappos have ridden the positivity wave to stardom. The data seem to support the wisdom of this trend: studies show that happy workers are better organizational citizens, have fewer workman compensation claims, are less likely to take sick days or to quit, and even earn more money.

When it comes to the emotional labor hypothesis, those rosy moods seem to affect others. Happy workers earn superior customer and manager evaluations.

Take control of yours emotions

The dirty secret of emotional labor is that it is the organization, and not the individual, who is in charge of feelings. Business leaders set the cultural norms for acceptable displays of emotions and, just as often, displays such as smiling are part of a carefully written script. This means that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what a person is truly feeling, she is required to play nice and pretend every interaction is like the best date ever!

The result is day-to-day suppression of authentic emotional experiences. Researchers have found that while displaying positive emotions offers workers an opportunity for feeling personal accomplishment the suppression of negative feelings leads to emotional exhaustion.

A good example of the unforeseen consequences of a work culture that demands positivity and the stifling of negative emotions can be seen in the case of firefighters.

Dr. Olivia O’Neill, of George Mason University, collected data from over 40 fire stations. Firefighters talked about the strain of hiding their negative thoughts and feelings; one said, “You just button it up and abuse the wife, but not physically. Just by being emotionally distant.”

Backstabbing, or worse, can be a side effect of an office culture of positivity.

Well-intentioned fire chiefs tried to minimize these types of work-family strain by following the advice of happiness gurus who suggest playfulness and pranks to lighten the mood. One chief openly stated, “No stiffs allowed!”

Make no mistake: a culture of playfulness in the fire house produces benefits such as speed in coordinating a group to prepare equipment and get on the truck quickly.

The data also revealed that positivity has a down side. The greater the emphasis on positivity in the fire house the greater the likelihood of an auto accident en route to an emergency and greater property loss at the scene. In addition, in fire houses with a strong culture of suppressing uncomfortable emotions the personnel experience poorer physical health.

The benefits of being a skeptic

Traditionally, HR departments have relied on selection to circumvent this problem. By hiring the most cheerful people companies think they can sidestep the need for people to hide “negative” emotions.

Companies that push for positivity unwittingly create a culture in which workers simply don’t have an outlet for the very real negative feelings that bubble up from time to time. The result? Office backstabbing, water cooler gossip, off-the-clock complaining and turnover. Researchers have also discovered that instead of being a buzz-kill skeptics are crucial to vetting bold ideas that actually translate to market success.

Fortunately, there is a solution: emotional agility. Emotional agile people are those who are highly attuned to the fact that success is about using the correct emotional resources in each unique situation.

They are good at viewing the world from other people’s perspectives and because of this know that feeling positive is not the only way to produce positive feelings in someone else. When a customer appears worried, for instance, over choosing the perfect outfit for a job interview an emotionally agile employee won’t try to cheer them up. Instead, they commiserate as long as needed to help solve the problem.

Leaders are in a unique position to demonstrate this more sophisticated, flexible, and effective approach to emotional labor. It is time to move from simple-minded approaches to positivity and allow workers to be whole, psychologically speaking. Employees who can shift between amiability with eager customers, compassion with frustrated customers, and worry with a colleague will be more successful both on and off the job.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors.