First, a question (or two)!
Have you heard the term “Toxic Positivity?” Are you familiar with its potential impact on workplace culture?
It’s a phenomenon that’s equally elusive and simultaneously embedded into our lives so profoundly that it goes unnoticed.
To make things more complicated, in the U.S., toxic positivity is EVERYWHERE.
(Think: ‘thank yous’ FOR EVERYTHING, a smile that NEVER goes away (with no change in expression throughout a conversation), or eye contact THAT LASTS WAY TOO LONG from someone going out of their way to seem “positive” and “upbeat” — no matter the situation).
So, of course, when it leaks into a workplace’s culture (unknowingly or knowingly), some say that it may have dire consequences.
In response, this post dives into how toxic positivity manifests in workplace culture and, ultimately, our everyday lives. Throughout, I’ll give some tips to pinpoint it and the initial steps I’ve taken to uncover this workplace “phenomenon.”
Can a positive workplace culture be… toxic?
It may sound like a trick question, but positivity isn’t always positive. The point of this isn’t to spin “being positive” into something “solely negative.” Instead, it’s to uncover insincere positivity, sometimes called toxic positivity.
For example, I saw a LinkedIn post about “demonstrating empathy to build a positive workplace culture.” The claim was that it would help “support your colleagues’ mental health.”
It irked me!
To be clear, it wasn’t the actual article or the author that troubled me. Nor was I bothered because it discussed ideas to improve workplace culture or tried to embrace mental health.
Both are needed. A LOT.
Why did I find it bothersome?
It didn’t touch on positive toxicity at all. It only focused on “being positive” to help improve “mental health.”
From a personal standpoint and as a business analyst, I can attest that NOTHING gets resolved through sheer positivity, optimism, or for lack of better words, gaslighting. Plus, I’ve experienced toxic positivity myself (it’s why I became a Business Analyst and switched back to human rights work!)
Instead, the article (unknowingly) took the approach that many companies take: despite the scenario, remain optimistic and approach EVERY situation professionally by sprinkling in “positivity” and “empathy.”
So, before we dive too deep into what toxic positivity is, I feel it’s necessary to clarify a few workplace culture issues to tie it with some toxic positivity examples. Furthermore, the goal is to show how toxic positivity can exist in different ways or perhaps even be the root cause of a company’s (and their employee’s) grief.
The First Point: Relationship Building
As humans, our lives change for the good and bad.
Coworkers come and go. The cost of living never seems to even out. We may or may not get married. Start a family. And the list goes on. But, on the other hand, we could get laid off tomorrow or get the most fantastic job offer today.
It’s all in flux.
ALL OF IT.
And we need to start building (genuine vs. insincere) work relationships to help nix toxic positivity
Well, if any flux impacts one person on a team, it could, abstractly, influence the other team members, right?
Overall, how people approach their work is one of the main components that impact a company’s culture. Then, if management has a say, and depending on how they deal with how employees respond to change, it gets even more complicated.
Let’s add a campaign meant to “improve company culture.” And the campaign is intended to correct a “negative” atmosphere (through management training) to help shift toward a more “positive” focus.
Of course, a positive vs. negative approach is better regarding change management. However, what if management never built meaningful relationships with their employees?
Think about it. How do we develop friendships and relationships in our “real lives?”
Do we just “keep things positive” and “remain optimistic” that the person we just met will like us without any effort?
Of course not.
PSA: the workplace is REAL LIFE…
And we need to begin treating workplaces that way.
Plus, to make REAL change happen, we need to foster personal and professional relationships with sincerity and genuine concern. You won’t get buy-in without it!
Workplace culture is getting more complicated.
Speaking of employee buy-in, nowadays, it’s more complex than ever to navigate our professional lives. Add in COVID-19, increased political polarization, and [fill in the blank] and it may sometimes even seem impossible.
Then, in the face of everything, we need to deal with insincere managers trying to implement a change management (or ANY) initiative with sheer positivity as their approach.
But we don’t know them. Plus, the said managers may also discount feedback. And ideas.
And guess what?
That doesn’t get you buy-in. If anything, you get the opposite.
That doesn’t fly when someone delegitimizes a REAL concern from someone else. Especially if the issue(s) lead to anxiety, fear, hardships, or something else.
It’s exhausting. Not empathetic.
It’s annoying. Not authentic.
It’s inhumane. Not innovative.
It’s maniacal. Not motivating.
So to circle back to that article’s point, workplace culture NEVER “materializes” solely from empathy and/or “being positive” despite all odds.
Sure, it’s a component, but it isn’t the main one. And it shouldn’t necessarily be the last. Instead, it should be continually infused within your information delivery and training plans.
And the kicker: you can only successfully pull that off if it’s a fundamental part of your company culture!
If it isn’t, especially in the face of the great resignation and COVID-19, companies (and their culture myths) are in for a rude awakening.
As mentioned before, the other thing that irked me was the tone of “embracing mental health in the workplace.”
Companies are starting to advocate for mental health resources in the workplace
Let’s face it, mental health is complex, and there isn’t a one-size fits all solution. Heck, there probably never will be! However, that doesn’t mean a company should push these concerns under the rug and not talk about them.
Instead, we need to do the opposite!
And guess what? Our employers are responsible for giving us the resources, including who we should reach out to and what services are available (keep reading for suggestions). Moreover, if you need some ideas, here’s a great chat from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.
The Second Point: Being A-Political is Divisive
Another point companies need to consider is if they embrace an “a-political” culture in hopes of appearing “professional” to “not cause contention.”
Newsflash: that no longer works. It’s an outdated and abstract way of looking at “professionalism.” Actually, it’s a MAJOR misnomer that needs addressing!
What do I mean by that?
Because we are amid a changing workforce, economy, and political upheaval. Also, we’re exposed to more information than ever before, and data access is continually growing. Ultimately, the changing workplace culture IS a movement in its own right. So, as for companies trying to remain “a-political,” they are fooling themselves. Plus, there’s too much at stake to take such an insular approach.
Rejecting reality is no longer accepted.
Dismissing concerns, feedback, employee mental health, backup childcare, location flexibility, and the like is ultimately a rejection of reality. Moreover, doing so gives an impression that a company supports the “status quo.”
And guess what?
History tells us (like what we experienced over the last 4 years) that this thinking fosters systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Don’t believe me? Companies that have tried to implement a “no politics” culture have found out the hard way.
The Third Point: Management Advertises Workplace Culture (and Toxic Positivity)
So what happens if a company skips over trust-building and instead has management approach the ups and downs of fostering a positive work culture with unbound and unrelenting (insincere) “empathy?” and rejects… for lack of better words… reality?
Well, history also tells us that if you skip trust-building (which includes components of empathy to help us foster positivity), you won’t really know what employees think about the company.
And that’s a problem!
If a company isn’t aware of differing perspectives and impressions within its own organization, they don’t have a solid starting point for change management.
Oh, you have values, you say? Ah, and excellent company culture?
If you don’t, other roadblocks develop.
For example, buy-in will suffer if you disregard well-founded disparities from concerned employees, management, customers, and stakeholders. But, then, what happens to those unresolved issues and complaints? They snowball. And guess what that leads to?
Disclaimer: an AI helped me write part of this post (which still required A LOT of editing) — nonetheless, thank you, You.com, for creating YouWrite and being my first real AI blogging tool! After this post, I’ll write about the overall experience and place the link → here ← when published. In the meantime, read my 5-part Innovation Series or the first post in this AI series.)
Let’s switch things up!
Let’s ask the AI!: “what are the main steps when trying to build and improve workplace culture to get rid of toxic positivity?”
When it comes to company culture, there are a few key steps you can take to build and improve it – and get rid of toxic positivity in the process.
Here are four tips to help fix toxic positivity:
- Define your company culture. What is important to you and your team? What do you want your culture to look like? Defining these things up front will help ensure everyone is on the same page – and working towards the same goals.
- Communicate openly and often. Company culture should be discussed frequently – within individual teams and the entire organization. This helps ensure that everyone understands what’s expected of them, knows how they can contribute, and feels like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
- Encourage feedback (and act on it). Culture isn’t static – it evolves over time based on the people who are a part of it. That means soliciting employee feedback (and actually taking their suggestions into account) is essential for ensuring your company culture remains healthy and positive.
- Celebrate successes (and learn from failures). A big part of creating a positive company culture is celebrating wins together – both small victories AND significant milestones. But don’t forget to learn from failures; after all, mistakes are an essential part of growth. By following these tips, you can create or improve upon an existing company culture that supports productivity, creativity, innovation, and, most importantly – happiness!
Human (my) perspective
I think the above steps are necessary. But, of course, before we plan an approach to any project, we need to research and info gather. So, for example, Project Managers/Business Analysts like myself use the PESTLE analysis to help us assess what we’re up against. We also set benchmarks to help us measure success moving forward.
Now, to tie this all together.
What IS toxic positivity?
Toxic positivity is when a company tries to create a positive image by hiding or ignoring its problems.
AKA: pretending that everything is okay when it’s not, praising employees for things they haven’t done, rejecting legitimate concerns (i.e., with a smile), having benefits that don’t align with your company’s culture and values, punishing employees who speak up about problems, etc.
Needless to say, and for those who have experienced it, toxic positivity harms employees and customers in more ways than one!
It makes us feel like we can’t trust our (own) judgment, and it stops us from being honest with each other about what’s happening. As a result, it is difficult for teams to grow, work cohesively, and ultimately solve problems. In addition, if it becomes so bad, it can leak into an employee’s personal life.
I’ve witnessed workplace situations where toxic positivity was so bad that multiple employees had difficulty navigating common issues in their personal lives.
One said they stopped “really knowing what they were good at.”
Another began to question “if it made more sense to stop telling the truth and makeup solutions because we were so far from reality.“
It is unbelievable, and it’s at epidemic proportions.
Another scary consideration = how many of us can relate?
So WHAT can we do about toxic positivity in the workplace?
- Combat toxic positivity through public acknowledgment and policies that encourage employees to speak up if they feel uncomfortable.
- Train managers and employees to identify signs of workplace toxicity and how to navigate.
- If it helps, Harvard Business Review wrote an article about the 3 elements of trust.
- Implement an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Uprise Health is a full suite of mental health and work-life services.
Toxic positivity is not only a problem in Corporate America but embedded into the cultural fabric of the United States. And it HAS to stop.
We’ve all heard that “positive thinking leads to positive results.” And while that might be true in some scenarios, it’s NOT when it comes to workplace culture and combating toxic positivity.
It’s not the end all be all.
Heck, it’s not even the first step. But, at the end of the day, we need to start paying attention to the warning signs and act because it seems to be damaging overall productivity, how we build relationships, how we navigate through life’s ups and downs, and ultimately, our mental health.