Can being positive in the workplace ever be toxic?
It sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?
Yet increasing numbers of us are experiencing toxic positivity.
A Science of People study last year showed that 68 per cent of those who took part had experienced toxic positivity during the previous week.
And it can be particularly damaging in the workplace, leading to employees bottling emotions, feeling isolated and unheard, and is seen as a contributor to quiet quitting.
I caught up with Saphire Kumar, one of our leadership and management training courses tutors, to find out more about it.
So, what exactly is toxic positivity?
Essentially, toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire a situation becomes, people should maintain a positive mindset.
And, while it starts with good intentions and attempts to create a healthy culture, it leads to issues being downplayed and swept under the carpet.
“Toxic positivity is a pressure to only display positive emotions and to suppress any negative feelings, reactions and experiences,” Saphire said.
“And I think it links to the pandemic. We went through a difficult time, and the emphasis was on trying to get people to feel better as they dealt with big changes to the way they worked, going to home working and then hybrid work.
“When you go into workplaces now, there tend to be posters saying things like ‘good vibes only’.
“That is well meant, and I think the focus on well-being is brilliant. But I also think some places may have gone too far.”
The impact of toxic positivity can be far-reaching, which is perhaps not surprising when you consider it is based on suppressing feelings and emotions.
It can impact trust, make people feel isolated, create an environment where people are reluctant to raise issues and stop people from trying to improve.
“I think toxic positivity can lead to employees feeling they are not listened to or heard and invalidate how they are feeling,” Saphire said.
“It can also create an avoidance culture where people stop raising those issues or concerns because they believe they will be minimised or they will be told ‘it will be ok’, ‘chin up’, or ‘other places have it much worse’.
“That last one is bad because who cares if other companies have got it worse? That’s not your situation.
“Toxic positivity can also trigger shame. If you are constantly told everything should be positive or that work is a no-negative zone, and you have feelings of anxiety or stress, you are going to feel more embarrassed about them.
“It can also hinder creativity and innovation because if people are bottling up their feelings and get burnt out, they will not strive to move forward.”
Ultimately, if problems and issues are distorted and ignored to minimise their impact on morale, they are never going to be fixed.
And if they are allowed to fester, those negative feelings will continue to grow unchecked, potentially impacting well-being and mental health.
So, what should we look out for? What are the warning signs?
Saphire mentioned leaders saying things like ‘other places have it much worse’, earlier.
And that positive rhetoric can be a warning sign.
Watch out for the regular use of phrases like ‘cheer up’, ‘everything will work out ok’, ‘it could be worse’, ‘you should look on the bright side’, and ‘just think positively’.
Other warning signs can be simple solutions being offered for complicated problems, complaints being downplayed, and people being reluctant to speak in meetings.
“Identifying the warning signs can be tricky,” Saphire said.
“There is nothing wrong with trying to create a positive workplace environment.
“But leaders and managers need to spot when things have gone too far.
“A crucial one for me is when the positive rhetoric comes from everyone - not just leaders. If someone tries to raise a concern and their colleagues respond by saying, ‘you’ll be alright’ or ‘you always underestimate yourself’, then the positivity may have gone too far.”
Tackling positivity needs a culture shift.
While there is nothing wrong with aiming for a positive environment, there must be an understanding people cannot be cheerful and optimistic all the time.
We’ll spend around 90,000 hours of our lives at work, and things will go wrong. Permanent optimism is an unrealistic aspiration.
“Positivity isn’t the answer all of the time,” Saphire said. “If it was, why do we have so many people who are anxious and burnt out?
“People do go through challenging situations in the workplace.
“And people need to know that when they face these challenges and need to raise issues and concerns, they will be listened to. And that those issues are not glossed over.
“Managers must strive to create an environment where there is authenticity, and people can be themselves. It should be ok for someone to say they feel fed up today and be able to have a conversation about how to improve things.
“It should be ok for people to struggle or feel daunted with something as long as they are willing to grow with the process and believe they will get through it.”
This involves changing that positive rhetoric and responding with empathy.
Rather than saying, ‘others have it worse’, say, ‘I can understand why you are upset about that, and this is a challenging time, but this is how we can manage it’.
Coaching questions can help. Leaders should ask questions to encourage people to go into more detail about their issues and concerns and share what is going on.
People need to know it is ok for them to speak up.
Saphire said: “We all need to accept it is ok not to be ok.
“We can try to leave our problems at the door, but sometimes you need to speak out. You can’t be cheerful all the time.
“If you are feeling overwhelmed by your workload, for example, speak to your manager rather than taking more and more on.
“Explain what you are working on and why you might be unable to do the additional work to the best of your ability.
“I think the other thing we can all do is call it out when we see our colleagues being positive all the time. If they tell you, ‘it’s alright, you’ll get through it’, tell them you know it is well-intentioned, but it would be better for you if you could talk it through and try to find a solution together’.”
Our new online First Line Management training course is designed to give new or inexperienced managers a firm foundation to start their management career. And it can help with tackling toxic positivity with modules on how to handle difficult conversations.
Featuring videos, downloads, and knowledge check questions at every stage of your learning, our online learning option is perfect for those who can’t take time away from the office. Click here to find out more.
The BCF Group has been helping organisations develop their talent, inspire their people and overcome obstacles and challenges for the past 25 years.
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