Avoiding a culture of toxic positivity

Toxic positivity is a way of shutting down uncomfortable emotions and conversations. Plenty of us do it without realising how harmful it can be. I know I do it to myself (and I’ve done it to others).

While it can be difficult and energy-draining to tackle things head-on, toxic positivity saps too much from ourselves and our teams.

By repressing unpleasant emotions – like grief – we’re not solving the issue. We’re delaying it (and giving ourselves a hard time until we do deal with it).

When it comes to teams, managers who constantly respond to concerns or unhappiness with phrases (or an attitude) like “think positive!” or saying something “isn’t as bad as you think”, can come off as dismissive.

Toxic positivity stops us from being authentic, prevents us from sharing concerns and building trusting relationships, saps creativity and prevents us from changing – both as individuals and as businesses.

Toxic positivity poisons teams

People in positions of power, authority or privilege often use toxic positivity as a way to discourage conversations that make them uncomfortable.

Phrases like “look on the bright side”, “it could be worse” or “think about how lucky you are!” may all be valid statements, but what they do is shut down communication.

If members of your team feel that their concerns or feelings are regularly dismissed, glossed over, or ignored they’re unlikely to turn to you for help or advice. They may also doubt that you’ll take any work-related feedback on board.

When people feel that they can’t trust their teammates – or their manager – to be supportive, listen to criticism or cope with disagreements, a barrier goes up. Communication becomes surface-level, and collaboration becomes harder.

Toxic positivity blocks creative thinking

Toxic positivity is a refusal to be empathetic. Maybe we’re too tired. Maybe we have enough on our plates without thinking about how our colleagues are dealing with their stresses as well. It doesn’t change the fact that we’re just, maybe for a brief moment, refusing to spend energy on caring.

By blocking this understanding, we’re refusing to see things from the other person’s perspective. While the other person may not realise they’re being shut down, they leave the conversation unsatisfied and may be less likely to say what they mean in the future.

Trust, empathy and authenticity are all crucial to creative thinking and collaboration. If we can’t discuss difficult subjects and see things from multiple perspectives, how can we hope to create anything worthwhile?

Toxic positivity results in stagnation. Change and innovation often happen when something becomes uncomfortable, ineffective, unworkable or just untenable. Toxic positivity papers over the cracks and acts like everything is okay – it works to keep the status quo instead of accepting the need to change.

How can you avoid falling into the toxic positivity trap?

I’m not saying we must all wallow in our shared woe, and that negativity should be our default response. Not many people want to hear “yes, you are looking very tired” when we say we’re flagging. Positivity is brilliant when it’s not being used to silence someone else (or yourself!).

So how can we avoid using toxic positivity?

  1. Validate what people are saying. Even if you disagree with the premise of a statement or complaint, people usually tell the truth about their feelings. For example, if a team member says that they’re really struggling and they feel like everything they do is rubbish right now, “that’s not true! You’re brilliant 😊” may be a lovely thing to say, and true, but they probably won’t hear or believe it. By saying something like, “I know things are hard right now. What can we do to help?”, you’re showing that you’re listening to what’s being said and not being dismissive of the emotion behind the words. However…
  2. Be helpful. If you do ask how you can help, actually follow through with the help you agree on. If someone asks for more regular feedback and you agree on a monthly development chat, try not to keep cancelling it. The right words are great, but the action is just as important.
  3. Be a motivator to yourself or others. If there’s a situation that needs to change or a negative emotion that someone needs to work through, what can that person do to take control? It could be something as simple as suggesting taking annual leave (and ensuring that the person doesn’t come back to a backlog of work) if a person is getting burnt out.
  4. Understand that we’re all human. Most of us can’t switch our emotions off at will. While the ultra-professional among us may say that our emotions shouldn’t affect our work, that’s not realistic. Emotions are complex, and sometimes people will struggle with them. By showing that you understand that, you make it easier for people to be themselves, be empathetic and find that creative spark.

Featured photo by Tobias Mrzyk on Unsplash

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