Here’s a familiar scenario. A team member is overwhelmed with the amount of work she needs to finish over a short period. She’s feeling like a failure because she doesn’t think she’ll be able to do her work as well as she likes.
The team member turns to her manager for support. Her boss offers this advice: “Be positive! If you believe in yourself, you’ll finish everything you need to do!”
This boss was clearly trying to be supportive and probably believes her words of encouragement were helpful to her subordinate. But were they?
Probably not. This is a classic example of “toxic positivity,” where a struggling individual is told to look on the bright side for its own sake. In other words, toxic positivity takes encouragement to its unproductive extreme. Yes, positive thinking can relieve stress and build confidence, says Mayo Clinic, but positivity no matter the context has two problems.
First, forced positivity doesn’t solve anything and may actually encourage your team to willfully overlook issues. Or, if you enforce toxic positivity, your team members may stop coming to you with their valid concerns. In the example above, if the employee’s deadlines are impossible, she still won’t be able to meet them no matter how “positively” she thinks.
Another concern with toxic positivity is that it can invalidate negative feelings or encourage your team members to push away negative emotions. This is an unhealthy state of mind and can result in a host of mental and physical problems.
Worried that you may be foisting toxic positivity onto your employees? Here, we’ll discuss what constitutes toxic positivity, as well as offering better ways for helping your team work through their struggles.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity encourages your team to be happy or envision a cheery outlook, even when they’re in the middle of a difficult assignment, struggling with personal or workplace issues, or undergoing a dip in their mental health.
Common phrases that may signal toxic positivity are seemingly-benign cliches like, “Just be happy!” or “Stop being so negative!”
Toxic positivity is not the same as offering kind words on a yearly evaluation form or praise for a project well-done; it is an insistence that your subordinates appear cheerful and hopeful, even if they’re struggling. “Appear” is often the key word here; even someone is feeling discouraged, toxic positivity encourages them to act like they’re optimistic.
“Research shows us that the avoidance of hardship or difficulty can in itself lead to more struggle. Additionally, studies have found that chasing happiness is linked to obsessing over any not-happy feelings, ultimately bringing on increased unhappiness as well,” says Dr. Jacinta M. Jiménez.
What’s So Wrong with Toxic Positivity?
If you train your team to ignore problems or issues, they could run into several problems, like the following:
No Plans for Failure
If your team focuses solely on positive outcomes, then they’ll become conditioned not to consider negative possibilities. Some doubt is actually useful because it encourages you to plan for both either a positive or a negative future. If your team is encouraged not to plan for failure, they’ll be less able to cope with negative outcomes.
An Increased Likelihood to Overlook Problems
At the same time, an aggressively cheerful attitude could also mean that they’re missing out on possible pain points or problems. If someone develops a belief that “everything will work out,” they may ignore or downplay concerns, especially if you’ve created a workplace culture where only positive responses are valued.
A Disconnection from Processing Emotions
Humans don’t feel happy all the time, and as Jiménez says, striving for happiness can make us even less happy. This is similar to toxic positivity – your employees may feel even worse about themselves if they feel that their colleagues never struggle. This isolation may make them feel worse than they already did.
What Are Healthier Alternatives to Toxic Positivity?
Encourage Your Team to Identify What’s Not Working
Instead of encouraging your team to look on the bright side all the time, encourage them to share their concerns. If they are anxious about a project or customer, then encourage them to identify those problems; our negative emotions are productive and should not be overlooked.
If your team member comes to you with an issue, work with them to find a solution. You could ask a question like, “What would you like to see happen to improve what you’re concerned about?”
Empathize, Instead of Forcing Positivity
Sometimes, all your team members want is someone to validate their feelings. If someone on your team comes to you with a problem, don’t only help them solve it, but also show empathy for their concerns. Relate to them. If they’re feeling stressed or scared, tell them that you’re feeling the same way. If they’re tackling a problem that you faced in your earlier career, share your story. Your team won’t think you’re too negative; they’ll see you’re human.
Create Psychological Safety for Your Team to Confide in You
Psychologist Amy Edmondson coined the term “psychological safety” to describe a healthier way of interacting than toxic positivity. “Psychological safety enables candor and openness and, therefore, thrives in an environment of mutual respect,” she explains.
Psychological safety is the opposite of toxic positivity, which focuses on diminishing concerns in favor of a forced happy outlook. Psychological safety is more authentic; it doesn’t ask you to praise everything your colleague says or does but emphasizes the respect that comes from truly listening.
Toxic positivity doesn’t mean that you’re encouraging your team to dwell in the negative. The impulse to praise your team and respond to their concerns with enthusiasm isn’t a bad one. But toxic positivity can still be harmful to your employees. Responding to your team’s concerns, validating all their mindsets, and encouraging everyone – including yourself – to sit with your failures creates a workplace culture where authenticity is valued over false cheeriness.
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