The ice-breaker activity at the start of this week’s leadership team meeting was to offer one piece of positive feedback and one piece of constructive feedback for the person to your left.
Here’s the feedback I received:
Katelyn, everyone here would agree—you’re an incredibly happy, positive person who brings a great level of joy to the office. My piece of constructive feedback would be to bring that same level of positive and happy energy into stressful situations. I’ve seen you a few times become stressed at work. Your actions were never unprofessional but I just think it’d be great if you could bring your sense of joy into those moments too!
I had a hard time understanding and believing this feedback. It’s not that I had been unprofessional in stressful situations, it’s just being suggested that I should be happy in stressful situations? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
I clenched my fists and had a hard time concentrating during the rest of the meeting. That feedback made me feel like because I am a happy person, I am no longer allowed to feel or express any other emotion that isn’t decorated with rainbow sprinkles?
My anger grew as I thought of the guy who sits a few desks down from me. No one would ever suggest he bring some joy into his day instead of cursing at his computer when it glitches. Who would suggest that the CEO smile more when she sternly asks a team member when he’s going to deliver on a deadline? Why wouldn’t anyone expect the quiet programmer to add some pep into his step as he gets his morning coffee?
It’s the double-edge sword of having the reputation of being a happy and positive person—people expect you to be that way 100% of the time. They expect it even in situations that warrant other emotions, like stress, sadness, or fear.
Here’s the truth: happy people aren’t usually naturally happy people.
We work at it! It takes energy, thoughtfulness, and being self-aware to create a demeanor that consistently makes lemonade, even when the lemons are turning moldy.
When I miss my train to work in the morning, I could let it ruin my morning. Or, I could acknowledge another train is on its way and while I wait, I have more time to enjoy reading my new book.
I believe it’s actually harder to be a positive person than a critical complainer. To onlookers though, this hard work comes across as effortless and as a result, an expectation is set: always be positive.
Bringing a bubbly, happy energy to the office is my norm. But, sometimes feedback needs to be given to my direct report in a serious tone, or I need to stress how important a deadline is to my colleague. The frills of puppy dog smiles and glitter covered unicorns are absent in these situations. And that’s okay.
So what do I do when people expect happy Katelyn all. the. time. ?
Well, that feedback was hard for me to digest at first. My initial reaction was to stand on my desk, using it as a soapbox, and shout out why I had a right to more emotions beyond shiny, sugar filled ones. I wanted to demand he understand that it takes work to be this happy and it shouldn’t be assumed I can bring happiness to a situation as easily as flipping a light switch on can bring brightness to a once dark room.
Instead though, I simply acknowledged that to people like my coworkers, the brand image I’ve created for myself is that of, “happy.” They do not realize it is in a fact a brand I’ve intentionally created for myself and have to work at to accomplish every day.
It may not be fair or acknowledged but it is my choice to choose happy. And I will continue to choose the happy route because even though it can be work, the rewards are why I do it. I want to experience life with more joy and less pessimism. I want to use happy as a way to help me through challenging times and create a domino effect of more goodness in my life.
I choose happy as my brand but I know that I can and will inevitably experience other emotions too, like stress. And when stressful situations occur, I might choose to cultivate a bit of joy but I may also simply embrace the feeling of stress for a moment…no smile required.