Toxic Positivity and Workplace Culture Don’t Mix

This post dives into how toxic positivity manifests in workplace culture and our everyday lives. Is now the time for change?

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 help 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 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 mention toxic positivity at all. It only focused on “being positive” to help improve “mental health.”

How's that (toxic positivity) going?
GIF via GIPHY

From a personal standpoint and as a digital transformation (DX) consultant who helps transform workplace culture, I know firsthand that NOTHING gets resolved through sheer positivity and optimism alone.

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, I feel it’s necessary to clarify a few workplace culture issues and tie them with 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. We also have emotions and can sense things like dishonesty.

Also, 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.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, let’s consider that if any (positive or negative) flux impacts one person on a team, it could “abstractly” influence the other team members, right?

For example:

*crossing fingers*
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We must plan a campaign to “improve company culture.” And let’s say the goal is to improve communication toward fostering open communication and feedback using a new platform. Let’s also say that the project sponsor has done their part.

Of course, using a positive vs. negative approach is better regarding change management. Do the same rules apply regarding digital transformation projects (I will answer below or read about the basics of DX)? Or, where I’m headed with this — what if management never built meaningful working relationships with their employees in the first place?

Think about it. Hint: how do we develop friendships and relationships in our “real lives?”

Do we solely (or soullessly) “keep things positive” and “remain optimistic” that people we meet will, without hesitation, communicate openly, listen, AND trust us without any effort at all?

Of course not.

PSA: the workplace is REAL LIFE…

And we need to begin treating workplaces that way.

We must foster personal and professional relationships with sincerity and genuine concern to make REAL change happen. You won’t get buy-in without it!

Workplace culture is getting more complicated.

Regarding employee buy-in, navigating our professional lives nowadays is more complex than ever. Add in COVID-19, increased political polarization, and [literally fill in the blank with anything business-related], and our day-to-day responsibilities are singlehandedly enough. Adding any task(s) on top of that can sometimes make our days drag on or seem impossible to accomplish anything.

Some managers don't even care
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Then, in the face of everything, we need to deal with insincere managers (who we barely know…and vice versa) trying to implement a change management initiative. Then, like clockwork, when the initiative begins to fail, those same managers pull out their “Employee Value Proposition” expertise and try to flip the script on employees with a tactic of sheer optimism and grit. And the circle of relentless toxic positivity persists.

Step back and reflect.

To get to the point — when coworkers don’t know each other (including management/managers), companies need to take a hard step back, reflect, and assess. I mentioned Employee Value Proposition (EVP) in the above example and tied it with our changing world (that was on purpose, by the way). In that example, if leadership did a hard stop and didn’t know what to assess, perhaps modernizing the EVP could be a starting point.

Why?

Recent shifts in the workplace have upended traditional EVP, impacting employee satisfaction, relationship-building, and overall engagement. Gartner’s VP wrote a great article on modernizing EVP and taking a more human-centered approach.

So, to reevaluate, workplace culture NEVER “materializes” solely from empathy and/or “being positive” despite all odds. (Ahem, toxic positivity.)

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.

A fundamental fact of any company's culture is to infuse genuine empathy and open communication with actionable + measurable business goals.
GIF via GIPHY

And the kicker: you can only successfully pull that off if it’s a fundamental part of your company culture! And guess what? Company culture is one of the 3 macro pillars of digital transformation! (Here are some key DX components to familiarize yourself with!)

You heard that right.

In the face of the great resignation/great awakening and COVID-19, companies (and their culture myths) are in for a rude awakening if they overlook company culture.

The Second Point: Some companies and employees are starting to advocate for mental health resources in the workplace

Let’s face it: most of us aren’t doctors, but we know that mental health is complex. Some of us might even realize there isn’t any one-size-fits-all solution. Heck, there probably never will be! However, that doesn’t mean a company should push these concerns aside 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 contact and what services are available (keep reading for suggestions) to move things forward. Moreover, if you need some ideas, here’s a great chat from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal.

The Third Point: Being A-Political IS Divisive

We need a political revolution in this country!
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Another point companies need to consider is if they embrace an “a-political” workplace 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.”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, we’re exposed to more information than ever, 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. There’s too much at stake.

Oh, that's not good. Toxic positivity ruins business!
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Rejecting reality is no longer acceptable.

Dismissing concerns, feedback, employee mental health, backup childcare, location flexibility, and the like ultimately reject reality. Moreover, doing so gives the impression that a company supports the “status quo.”

And guess what?

History tells us (like 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 Fourth 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?

Spilling the tea on workplace toxic positivity!
GIF via GIPHY

Well, history also tells us that if you skip trust-building (including empathy components to help us foster positivity), you won’t 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 organization, they don’t have a solid starting point for change management.

Oh, you have values, you say? Ah, and excellent company culture?

Prove it!

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?

More roadblocks. High turnover. Continued communication roadblocks. And more!


Disclaimer: an AI service 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. Lastly, here’s an article to learn more about the types (and uses) of artificial intelligence or its role in modern business operations.)


Let’s switch things up!

The AI thinks that some of the initial steps are to improve workplace culture and nix toxic positivity.
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Let’s ask the AI!: “What are the main steps when building and improving workplace culture to eliminate 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Communicate openly and often. Company culture should be discussed frequently – within individual teams (in-person, hybrid, and digital 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.
  3. Encourage feedback (and act on it). Culture isn’t static – it evolves 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.
  4. 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; mistakes are essential to growth. By following these tips, you can create or improve upon an existing company culture that supports productivity, creativity, digital innovation, and, most importantly – happiness!

A Human (my) perspective

I think the above steps are necessary. But, of course, we must research and gather information before we plan an approach to any project. So, for example, Project Managers/Business Analyst leaders 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.

The Takeaway

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 really 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 questioning “if it made more sense to stop telling the truth and make up solutions because we were so far from reality.

It is unbelievable, and it’s at epidemic proportions.

Another scary consideration is how many of us can relate.

So, WHAT can we do about toxic positivity in the workplace?

Start here:

  1. Combat toxic positivity through public acknowledgment and policies encouraging employees to speak up if they feel uncomfortable.
    1. Here are some signs that toxic positivity may exist in your workplace
  2. Train managers and employees to identify signs of workplace toxicity and how to navigate them.
    1. If it helps, Harvard Business Review wrote an article about the three elements of trust.
  3. Implement an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
    1. Uprise Health is a full suite of mental health and work-life services.

In summary

Toxic positivity is not only a problem in Corporate America but is 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 we need to start paying attention to the warning signs and act because it’s damaging overall productivity, workplace relationships, navigating through life’s ups and downs, and, ultimately, our mental health.

Human rights and company culture go hand-in-hand!
GIF from GIPHY
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