“Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals”. This was an awesome response by Olympic gymnast and dancer Simone Biles when one of the Dancing with the Stars judges told her that her intensity can be off putting and might hold her back. Ms. Biles’s determination and drive are literally “Olympic” in their intensity. She works hard and seeks perfection whenever she is engaged. Shouldn’t that be enough? Well not for some people.
Everybody likes the jovial, open, and fun person around the office. Their easy going, laid back manner makes them popular and well liked; but what of the person who is focused and intense? Their determination and competitive spirit drives sales and innovation, but can have the effect of intimidating co-workers. They would like nothing more to get the job done and move on to the next thing. Their focus is on quality and efficiency and not on recapping the night’s sports scores or talking office politics. How come they are the ones we focus on and try to “fix”?
Women hear this comment all the time. It is not exclusively a female complaint. Science says that men with higher levels of testosterone smile less and generally have less facial expressions than other men. Yet, I have a hard time envisioning Steve Jobs and Bill Belicheck being told to smile more so that they will be less intimidating. More likely they are lauded for all they can accomplish and given leeway to go on about their day.
So why is it important that we are always telling people to smile? It comes from two areas, from people who are caring and from people who are controlling. Both of which often have limited effectiveness. Being told to smile can seem like a command and a way of being fake. Telling people to be fake is a questionable practice and not one most companies strive for.
Be who you are
I have always prized effectiveness and the ability to get a job done as a higher priority than smiling. One of the teachers I used to have reporting to me was outstanding. Her kids scored well and she was always prepared and knew what she her subject. I had her teach the highest-level students, and her kids nailed the AP test every year. Outcomes were great, but she still had issues with other teachers and students because her quiet and calm exterior could be read as cold and authoritarian. Every year as I placed kids in her class there would always be someone who would protest. “I can’t be in Ms. Smith’s class”, they would whine, “I heard she is mean”. “Nonsense” I would reply. “She is quiet, caring and won’t accept anything but your best.” “But still!”, they would grumble, then take the assignment anyway. Inevitably when I would see them later in the year, they would tell me how awesome she is and how much they were learning.
Many times, I wanted to go up to Ms. Smith and tell her she should lighten her exterior, but I knew that would be unfair. Effectiveness was her calling card, not being jovial. She was one of my best teachers and I didn’t want to change that. Besides, if she didn’t want to smile, it probably was because she was focused on her learning goal for each class.
Is smiling important at all?
So, does not smiling mean that a person is being rude? No, of course not. A friend of mine works for a company who recently had its number one salesman come to their corporate office to bring the customer service team some donuts. He had to do this because while he was a great salesman and his customers loved him, the people in charge of filling the orders he sold could not stand him. He was never mean, just too direct and forceful in his correspondence. “Did it work?” I asked my friend. “No, because he is horrible at it, but at least now he gets his orders placed.”
I’m a big fan of smiling and I’ll confess I have told people to smile occasionally. I like to think it is out of empathy; I don’t want them to feel bad and wanted to help, but I see now that was misplaced. If you are in a bad mood or are bummed out about something, no problem. Being focused and down is just as real of an emotion as laughing and joking; one is not inherently better than the other and it should not be our focus in the workplace.
While smiling can be a huge mood booster, being focused on your work or effort does not make you a bad person. The benefits to smiling are well documented. The act of smiling activates neural messaging that benefits your health and happiness. … The feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are all released when a smile flashes across your face as well. However, choosing to smile is the key. The benefits only kick in if it comes from inside. No one can force you to be in a good mood.
So smile if you want to, but only if you want to. Smiling doesn’t win gold medals as Ms. Biles says, only hard work, dedication, and sacrifice do that. And sometimes, that is nothing to smile about.