Human Resources

3 Ways to Avoid Toxic Positivity in the Workplace


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There’s no other way to say it - the last year has been a tough one for all of us.

Amidst an ongoing pandemic, we’ve had to make major adjustments, including getting used to spending a lot more time at home and even more time away from friends and family. These circumstances have made it hard to stay positive, especially when the world is still trying to figure out how to get back on its feet.

To this end, most of us find ourselves downplaying how much COVID-19 has impacted us because it’s often considered normal practice to adopt a ‘smile and just get on with it’ attitude in the face of such challenges.

We’re here to tell you, however, that while positive thinking is great in theory, sometimes it’s important to take a step back and reflect on how you’re genuinely feeling - even while at work.



What is toxic positivity?

In the simplest of terms, toxic positivity is a preoccupation with positive thinking and emotions. In other words, it’s when people put too much emphasis on putting a positive spin on every experience - especially those that are particularly difficult. This causes people to mask how they really feel, ultimately minimising their feelings to avoid being shamed or making other people feel uncomfortable.

While toxic positivity can take on many forms, a few examples of it showing up in the workplace include:

  • When you’re told to ‘stop being negative’ or ‘stay positive’ over legitimate concerns.
  • Brushing things off, dismissing your emotions, or feeling guilty for how you feel.
  • When business leaders insist that ‘things are fine’ during uncertain times in the company.
  • When your boss refuses to acknowledge how the pandemic may have impacted your performance in your quarterly or year-end review.


What are the impacts of toxic positivity at work?

As human beings, we experience a wide range of emotions every day. When business leaders focus on creating a positive team environment without actually listening to what their employees are struggling with, it can subsequently invalidate how individuals are feeling and cause a lot of unwanted tension.

This, in turn, can significantly decrease trust between employees and their coworkers, reduce employee morale, and become a detriment to mental health in the workplace.

To help combat toxic positivity at work, here are three best practices you can implement:

1. Listen and Learn

Actively listening to your coworkers when they need to address their concerns is a great way to avoid toxic positivity in the workplace. It gives them a chance to be heard and allows you to honour their objective experience.

While you might already think you’re a good listener, active listening goes far beyond listening as a means of one-way communication (i.e. listening but not providing feedback or asking questions). If you’re actively listening, you should be responding to the person you’re listening to in a way that lets them know that you’re fully engaged and understand what they’re trying to tell you about their experience.

Here are a few additional tips that will help ensure you’re giving someone your full attention:

  • Practice non-verbal feedback (i.e. make eye contact, smile, nod, and lean in)
  • Try not to interrupt them while they’re speaking
  • When providing verbal feedback, paraphrase what they’ve said for clarity
  • Pay attention to their body language for any cues related to the context of their experience

Now, we know it’s not always easy to know what to say when a coworker or employee comes to you with issues or concerns, so if you’re ever stuck, here are a few helpful and respectful things to say in response:

  • “That must be difficult for you - tell me more about it.”
  • “I can see that you’re feeling really stressed.”
  • “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Sometimes we just need a safe place to open up the dialogue, so before you dive into solving their problems, find out if they’re interested in accepting help or if they simply just need someone to listen without judgment.


2. A Positive Approach Over Positive Thinking

While positive thoughts are beneficial to getting through our day-to-day, it’s important to remember that positive thinking heavily depends on our current circumstances.

When it comes to problems in the workplace, positive thinking doesn’t answer challenging questions or address concerns. Instead, taking on a positive approach is what will help you tackle the issue you’re facing.

This is because taking on a positive approach means you’re stepping up to take the necessary action to solve problems at work, making room to address issues and their potential negative impacts, and collaborating with coworkers to find solutions.

After all, pretending something isn’t there doesn’t make it go away. If you have an issue, it’s not realistic that you’ll be able to think through it with a little positivity, ‘get over it’ and ‘just get on with it’ as normal. This is when we risk molehills becoming mountains and creating bigger issues down the line.

Problematic or negative things will inevitably pop up at work; just remember that it’s about how you positively and proactively approach these situations rather than how you positively think about them.


3. Practice Transparency

While businesses have tried their best to provide reassurance to their employees during the pandemic, it can do more harm than good in the long run and actually risks (unintentionally) teetering into the toxic positivity realm.

It’s one thing to provide employees with the reassurance that their jobs are safe and that business will continue as normal during challenging times, but if these promises aren’t accompanied by a realistic insight into what’s to come, employees are more likely to feel stressed and insecure.

Don’t get us wrong, it’s great to look on the bright side and maintain a positive outlook, but it’s not always practical. This is why it’s important for leaders to develop a plan of action and communicate it to employees - through good times and bad - even if the outcome might look a little scary.

Alternatively, if business and team leaders have access to positive future insights that can be backed up by data, it will help employees feel more at ease and give them the reassurance they need that they won’t suddenly lose their job, benefits, or any other perks.

So, whether it’s good news, bad news, or something in-between, remember that like you, employees will appreciate transparency in the workplace - along with the feeling that they have some idea of what to expect moving forward.

We hope that implementing these three ways to avoid toxic positivity in the workplace will help you create a culture of inclusivity and trust, helping people feel good and embrace the power of true positivity at work - when and where it’s warranted.

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