Millennials: Can Smiling and Being Happy Hurt Your Career?

Posted By Terri Williams on January 12, 2017 at 10:50 am
Millennials: Can Smiling and Being Happy Hurt Your Career?

Don’t Worry, Be Happy may have been a popular song nearly 30 years ago and an enduring catchphrase today, but perhaps employees should worry about being too happy. According to Bliss is Ignorance, a recent study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, being too happy at work can be problematic for an employee’s career.

What’s so bad about feeling good at work? The study asserts the following:

  • Very happy people are perceived as more naïve than moderately happy individuals.
  • Very happy people are believed to shelter themselves from negative information.
  • Very happy people are exploited in conflicts of interest and distributive negotiations.

Of course, maybe being happy really isn’t a problem for younger workers. A recent survey revealed that millennials are unhappy are work, and 32% plan to quit within the next six months. Another survey of millennial and Gen Z women found that at least 1 in 5 experience workplace bullying and sexism.

Other research and other perceptions of happy workers

According to data from the research firm Leadership IQ, the best performers in 42% of organizations were neither the moderately nor highly engaged workers. The best performers – defined by those with the best performance appraisals – were not engaged – which means that they were not necessarily fulfilled or happy at work.

So it would appear that being happy is not a requirement for being an excellent worker. And, being incredibly happy about your job doesn’t necessarily translate into being a good worker. The Leadership IQ report also reveals that the happy, low-performing workers are also most likely to recommend the organization as a good place to work. In the same report, Mark Murphy, Leadership IQ’s founder, writes, “We have low performers so comfortable in their status quo that they aren’t afraid to say ‘Well, I don’t do much around here, but it sure is a great place to work.’”

Another study, Too Much of a Good Thing: Curvilinear Relationships Between Personality Traits and Job Performance, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that when workplace positivity reaches a certain point, positive work behavior actually starts to decline. The researchers speculate that very happy workers might believe that everything is going so well that they don’t need to improve their performance. As a result, they don’t take proactive steps to advance or progress.

Don’t turn that grin into a frown yet

So, does this mean that employees should strive to look angry, mad, or sullen when they’re at work? Not at all. At least David Perry, an executive recruiter and the author of Hiring Greatness: How to Recruit Your Dream Team and Crush the Competition, doesn’t think so. Perry tells GoodCall®, “I think people who are happy at work have gotten their act together and are in the right role and not concerned with rubbing people the wrong way.”

He believes that happy workers are productive, in addition to being the kind of person others would want to work around, and Perry also thinks that they definitely help an organization’s recruitment efforts. “I think that people who view others being happy as less productive are very likely afraid their incompetence will be discovered so they’re looking to shift blame or shame the happy employee into being just as unhappy as they are.

Regarding the findings that some overly happy workers may be shielding themselves from negative information or may be naïve, Tim Kuppler, co-founder of and director of culture and organization development for Human Synergistics, says some workers may need a self-defense mechanism.

“Yes, it is rare for organizations to have highly constructive cultures and some individuals may need to shelter themselves from negativity for their own mental health,” Kuppler says. “It’s often the opposite in highly constructive or effective cultures where employees gain satisfaction and happiness from being proactively engaged in support of the purpose and mission priorities of the organization.”

Kuppler also thinks it’s a mistake to assume that very happy workers are naïve.  It’s quite possible for workers to choose to “rise above” their work challenges and/or negative work environment.

For example, Karen A. Young, SPHR, founder of HR Resolutions, tells GoodCall® that when she was starting out in her career as a personnel clerk, she was caught off guard by the jovialness of her boss.  “My immediate supervisor was always laughing and lighthearted about what we faced; this was challenging for me because what we did (personnel and human resources) was serious, and a part of me actually questioned her commitment to our profession.”

However, now that Young has “grown up,” she says she understands that supervisor’s attitude. “Life is entirely too short – employees SHOULD be happy at work; they should enjoy their work.”

In fact, Young says one of her company’s core values is “HR is Fun!” She explains, “We smile, we laugh, we joke around; we demonstrate these emotions in front of our clients, prospects, vendors and partners.”

Contrary to appearing less competent or dedicated, she believes the reverse is true.  “Demonstrating an expression of joy or happiness certainly doesn’t detract from our knowledge, skills and abilities – it enhances them, it makes us warmer and easier to approach.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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