Sunshine and Rainbows (At Work)


Saturday was one of those idyllic weather days. Blue skies, chirping birds, animated pedestrians.

One of those days that is all sunshine. One of those days that’s like Ellie.

Ellie loves people. She’s outgoing and upbeat. A textbook extrovert with aspirations to become an executive, she was thrilled when her boss asked her to start supervising two of her teammates–less than six months after starting at the company.

Feeling important in her new role, Ellie met with her new direct reports to explain the updated relationship. She assured them she was ready for the responsibility, would do a good job, and would continue to think of them as her friends.

Over the coming months, she made the dyad’s happiness at work her top priority. She asked instead of directed, reiterated her appreciation, and streamed positive feedback.

If she sensed frustration or negativity, Ellie would point out the positives and try to cheer the team up. When that didn’t work, she would ask for confirmation that all was good (she figured the power of suggestion would prevail), and was assured it was.

Occasionally, when she wondered if her efforts were successful, she was careful not to let her uncertainty show. She wanted to be seen as strong and capable. If they see me waver, she thought, they won’t respect me. So she put on a happy face.

When it came time to conduct her first performance evaluation, she worked after hours to carefully craft positive language. Despite some reservations, she gave both glowing reviews; she wanted them to feel good about the feedback. She conducted each conversation similarly; she told them how much she enjoyed working with them, shared accolades about their skills, and sandwiched  one area for improvement between hefty servings of compliments. Even when they asked for feedback, Ellie made sure to keep her comments positive.

Which is why she was shocked when one of the employees gave their notice the following week.

She had done so much right. What had gone wrong?

Like any strength, Ellie’s sunny approach became a weakness when overextended. In this case, it overshadowed four critical areas:

A culture of openness
By encouraging an all-is-good culture, Ellie unintentionally discouraged honest, direct communication. Asking for affirmation rather than earnestly inquiring about her team’s experiences established a superficial level conversation, and pushing positivity shut down their attempts to express anything else.

Self development
Being confident in your abilities is a good thing–unless it keeps you from continuing to grow. While Ellie sensed her limitations, she ignored addressing them. Instead of helping her grow as a manager, her efforts steered her away from learning, reinforced her existing abilities, and stalled her development.

Team development
By choosing to focus only on positive behavior, Ellie deprived her team of valuable opportunities to grow themselves. Choosing to avoid constructive feedback may feel kind to those on the giving end, but it does a disservice to the receivers. The best managers commit to advancing employees’ success, and say what will help do that–even when it’s uncomfortable.

By hiding her feelings and worries behind a sunny veneer, Ellie avoided showing vulnerability and missed out on connecting with her team. Counterintuitively, we model courage when we admit we are afraid, and ability when we admit we are still learning.


Naturally, Ellie did end up confronting these things. It was hard work at first. But then it was beautiful. Because when you add a little rain to sunshine, you get a rainbow.

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