This article was originally published on Forbes.com, under Jeff Miller’s Forbes Human Resources Council column.
Much of the time, 2020 has felt like a never-ending newsreel of hardships that made it easy to feel disillusioned with the world. Nearly seven in 10 U.S. workers have said that navigating this pandemic has been the most stressful time of their professional careers. Employees' productivity, motivation and engagement levels are down overall.
But the year is finally coming to a close — that fact alone is giving me hope. And with several promising vaccines and the U.S. presidential election behind us, there's finally a light at the end of the tunnel. As the new year approaches, I think we need to start shifting our mindset away from the negativity of the past nine months. In 2021, let's focus on positivity and opportunity.
Cue the eyeroll.
I get it. There are still a lot of reasons to feel cynical, and the entrance of a new year won't immediately solve everything. But I'm not advocating for the kind of positivity you might be imagining: an overly efficacious attitude or persistently cheery outlook. I'm talking about a more realistic type of positivity that's understanding of the human condition. It's about creating an environment that acknowledges both negative and positive emotions, and providing opportunities for employees to derive fulfillment from what they do.
Get Honest About Negative Emotions
Positivity does not imply the absence of negativity. This is a common misconception, and the opposite is actually more true. A healthy, positive mindset is only achieved when negative situations or feelings are expected and confronted. In order to develop a more positive outlook, negativity must first be acknowledged. Or, to put it another way: In order to develop a learning mindset, a defeatist one must first be overcome.
A positive workplace isn't one filled with misguided optimism or by a persistent "can-do" attitude. Too much of either not only is irritating but can also lead to a culture of toxic positivity that encourages employees to feign a good mood or "look on the bright side" instead of dealing with negative emotions. This can harm employees far more than it helps them: By constantly suppressing their true feelings, employees put their mental health at risk.
Instead, employers shouldn't define negative emotions as inherently bad, or positive ones as inherently good. Just look at both as natural, human emotions. By making this distinction, employees can feel more comfortable being honest with their manager or teams about negative emotions or personal struggles, especially when they start affecting their job performance.
To encourage this kind of honesty from employees, managers must lead by example. For instance, if an employee opens up to you about their struggle with depression or anxiety due to burnout, react with understanding rather than optimism. Focus on realistic solutions — for example, recommend that they take time off, adjust their workload or work with them to create a more manageable schedule. In their reaction, managers must also ensure that if an employee is dealing with negative emotions, they are taking steps to acknowledge them.
Give Employees More Autonomy Over Their Work
Another requirement for a positive work environment is making sure that employees feel positively about their jobs. This one may seem obvious, but it's not necessarily an easy thing to do. Employees only feel fulfilled at work when they derive a sense of personal satisfaction and achievement from it. The operative word here is personal — employees' accomplishments can only feel like their own when they have some control over them.
This is based on Martin Seligman's learned helplessness theory, the idea that an absence of control over the outcome of a situation can negatively affect a person's mental health and self-esteem. By giving employees more ownership of their goals and job tasks, they gain both confidence and control. They start to care more about their work and its quality because they see it as a reflection of themselves. Employees with more autonomy tend to perform at a higher level as a result, and derive more personal satisfaction from their achievements.
Giving employees complete autonomy over their goals and work isn't always feasible, and I am not speaking of abdication but delegation. But often, a sense of autonomy can come from simply mapping existing work to and goals to long-term growth. For example, when assigning an employee a new project, explain its value. Demonstrate why this new project and its respective goals are desirable in the first place, and how it fits into the bigger picture of the company and their personal progress. This helps them connect their intrinsic motivations to the project, making them more invested in its success. Or, give employees the autonomy to define their approach to a predetermined project. This provides a greater sense of control over the project and allows them to make their own goals for it.
Fostering Positivity Realistically
Employees don't have to maintain an upbeat attitude or have a smile constantly pasted across their face to be more positive. Personally, I'm skeptical of these behaviors, but more than that, they're ineffective at actually increasing workplace positivity. As we enter 2021, focus on systemic changes instead, like allowing employees to have more autonomy in their work or making sure they're dealing with negative emotions and personal struggles. These methods will produce positivity more reliably — and encourage it more naturally.
Want to learn more from Cornerstone CLO Jeff Miller? Read his thoughts on how companies can reshape their L&D programming for the year ahead here.
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