Science says your positive attitude might be annoying your co-workers — here's why

Rob Lowe as Chris Traeger and Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson in NBC's "Parks and Recreation."
NBC | Getty Images

"Fake it until you make it" is common workplace advice. But when it comes to faking a positive attitude, a lack of sincerity might actually be hurting your relationships with your co-workers, a recent study suggests.

People who fake positivity do not reap the same benefits as those who make an effort to actually improve their mindset, according to findings from the University of Arizona. The study found that those who were "deep acting" — actually trying to have a positive attitude — reaped benefits, including increased progress on goals and trust from co-workers. Those who were "surface acting," though, or displaying a smile even though they are actually frustrated, did not gain those same benefits in the long run.

Here's why feigning happiness at work can hinder your office relationships, and how you can genuinely improve your attitude to get ahead in your career.

'Faking good feelings' at work doesn't help you

In order to build relationships, you must be "known," says Lisa Marie Bobby, a psychologist and the clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching in Denver, Colorado. In fact, the ability to be authentic at work improves job satisfaction, performance, and employee engagement, according to a 2013 study.

"If you are so focused on image management that you're not being authentic, you are not creating any space for other people to connect with you and relate to you," Bobby says.

Trying to seem positive in a way that doesn't ring true may also signal to your co-workers that you lack empathy or patience for their emotional experiences. "Faking good feelings is a surefire way to not just prevent other people from knowing you, but also sending the message that you can't relate to them," Bobby says.

Faking good feelings is a surefire way to not just prevent other people from knowing you, but also sending the message that you can't relate to them.
Lisa Marie Bobby
psychologist, clinical director of Growing Self Counseling & Coaching

Faking positivity can exhaust you

Faking positivity may not only adversely affect your work relationships. It can negatively affect your own well-being. "When people feel a certain way — disappointed or angry — and then pretend to be OK, it's alienating to others, and not good for them either," Bobby says.

Keita Williams, founder of career consulting business Success Bully, says she sometimes has to act extra cheerful because expressing her true feelings can cause problems. "If I am up against the 'angry black woman' bias, the slightest displeasure or asserting myself is viewed as aggressive or an attitude problem," she says.

Constantly having to regulate her emotional expression has worn on Williams mentally. "I have seen and felt the emotional exhaustion myself," she says. "The emotional toll from faking positivity, carefully managing outward appearances, and daily combating biases in the workplace is real." And the exhaustion can also leave you less equipped to tackle other goals.

How to genuinely improve your attitude

Even if you're not where you want to be in your career yet or aren't excited about your job, there are some steps you can take toward sincerely improving your frame of mind.

  • Find hobbies or side hustles outside of work that bring you joy and purpose. "If your life is a pie, work is only a slice of that pie," Williams says.
  • "Practice daily gratitude," Williams recommends. Your career is long and what you're doing now can prepare you for the next step. By remembering that what you're doing today is a small part of a longer journey, you can be thankful for where you are right now.
  • Instead of altering your outward response to a workplace irritant, try changing the way you think about it. A mental shift can genuinely change the way you feel, Bobby says. Those who were "deep acting" in the study reaped rewards because they changed how they felt, not how they acted. "When people actually shift the way they are feeling through internal cognitive skills, like moving their own emotion-state from anger or disappointment to acceptance or hope, it fosters more positive working relationships," Bobby says.
  • Try to learn as much as you can. "Even in the most toxic of work environments, I learned something new that I was able to flawlessly apply to my next role," Williams says.

By making efforts to change your attitude and not just your image, you can build strong relationships with your co-workers without alienating them or exhausting yourself.

More from Grow: