PART 1: THE PROBLEM
Some of us are living this screenplay at work:
EXTERIOR. VOLATILITY. LAYOFFS. UNCERTAINTY. OVERWORK.
INTERIOR. WORKPLACE – DAY
Employees are in a meeting, slight smiles frozen on their faces. All with the soundtrack from the Lego Movie in their heads (V.O.) “Everything is awesome. Everything is cool when you’re part of a team…”
When asked what “toxic positivity” means, people don’t offer a definition. They provide examples:
“Saying everything is good when it’s not.”
“Ascribing good to something that’s actually bad.”
“Ignoring the uncomfortable parts.”
“Like putting lipstick on a pig.”
For the record, Psychology Today describes it as “…dysfunctional emotional management without the full acknowledgment of negative emotions.” Dysfunctional indeed—it’s a form of avoidance, which we know is unhealthy.
There’s a whole host of reasons why toxic positivity is no bueno, but here’s a few big ones that negatively reinforce one another:
It’s inauthentic. Most of us can sense “fake” when we come across it—even unconsciously–and it creates a visceral reaction driven by distrust. One person described it to me as the knowledge that they are “not getting the full picture.” Some may interpret this as lies of omission.
It compromises psychological safety. If it appears that everyone else shares the same sentiment, then we might feel social pressure not to contradict it. “How do I raise my concerns without appearing like a ‘Debbie Downer?’” I was asked. (We’ll get to that below). There are real business implications here–this is where poor decisions are made and how scandals begin.
Feeling unsafe on one issue could contribute to feeling unsafe in other circumstances–or entirely. Combine that with business challenges and market volatility and we get even more uncertainty. As a result, more people can’t/don’t bring their authentic selves and the cycle continues. Performance as a whole suffers.
It’s anti-DEIB. There’s no room for diverse perspectives without psychological safety and a predominant narrative of toxic positivity. All the proven benefits of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging can’t be leveraged, even if the numbers are achieved.
PART 2: THE SOLUTIONS FOR TOXIC POSITIVITY
So–what to do? The common answers might be: Call it out. Lead differently. Create safe spaces and channels for them. Cultivate relationships. These are good. But in the spirit of “Yes, and…” here are three additional ways that might create deeper, more impactful, and sustainable outcomes:
1. Abstain from toxic positivity
Rather than allowing it to happen to us, we need to empower ourselves as active parties. Culture is formed by patterns of behavior repeated over time, and we all participate in it. When we behave differently, then others will be compelled to respond differently, breaking the pattern. How we do that is our own choice, but showing might be better than telling. Here’s a three-step process to help you think through how you might intentionally go about breaking dysfunctional patterns in your life:
The first step is to OBSERVE. With observation as a superpower, you’ll know what’s happening when it’s happening, perhaps before anyone else. So pay attention. Look for where toxic positivity shows up. Isolate what triggers the behavior or patterns and their typical responses and outcomes.
Next, ANALYZE. Identify the gaps—whether it’s between values, what is said and what is done, or whatever is causing the dissonance. What is the meaning of the gap(s)?
Finally, RESET. This is where your actions will create a ripple effect with your colleagues. Nail down your targeted value, purpose or outcome and plan for it. What will you say or say or do? How might others respond? Think about your response to their response. When the moment comes, recognize when it’s happening and implement the new behavioral pattern that drives new responses and outcomes.
At a team level, the signs of toxic positivity might call for a negotiation or re-negotiation of how you agree to work with one another–or at the very least a moment to hold each other accountable. This social contract can take the form of a team charter. The template below begins with questions that drive dialogue. The answers from the top half feed the bottom half. This exercise is worthless if it’s not implemented and sustained. Take the team norms and revisit them at the start of every meeting. Ask how the group is doing when it comes to the norms and where they would like to lean in more.
On an organizational scale, the goal is have a culture where toxic positivity can’t happen, where attempts at such behavior are discouraged and the right behaviors (rooted in company values) are encouraged and experienced as part of the employee experience. Design of Work Experience (DOWE) provides “the how” for designing, implementing, and sustaining culture, combining design and change processes with engagement and developing/leveraging capabilities. The process is divided into five iterative and progressive phases, each with its own set of activities that ultimately yield an in-depth understanding of the current state, a design for the future state, and a roadmap with action plans. Culture Your Culture: Innovating Experiences @ Work describes the journey in detail and provides people, teams, and organizations with the capability to lead with culture.
2. Fight toxic positivity with genuine positivity
Instead of trying to slay the beast of toxic positivity, re-direct energy and focus with a 3-step process: name the problem, flip to positive framing, and ask generative questions that will encourage dialogue with others.
Positive framing is taking the positive opposite of your problem. In this case, we turn toxic positivity (which is fake) into genuine positivity (the healthy kind).
Next, we focus on the results of the “flip.” What do we get when we have genuine positivity driving our organization? Off the top: healthier dynamics, better well-being and therefore performance, greater organizational awareness with accuracy, etc.
Then we turn to generative questions to drive our attention toward those results–toward what we do want, generating new knowledge and possibility through dialogue. The generative questions here include: How do we create and generate healthier dynamics and well-being on the team that leads to higher performance? What changes would drive that? How might we increase awareness that’s accurate? Where have we seen genuine positivity in our organization? What conditions created it and how do we replicate them consistently? No one person can answer these questions. We need dialogue, where we can contribute and co-create new possibilities together.
This approach can be applied to any number of situations, including the everyday business problems that are sometimes dressed up with toxic positivity. For example: “We say we are positioned for success in a softening market, but we don’t feel it” becomes “How might we be positioned for success and really know it?”
3. Manage change
Change disrupts the status quo. Is the state of the market today disruptive to the status quo? You bet. And yet, instead of managing these times like one should any change initiative, many organizations are ignoring it, chaotically scrambling, or some other version of fecklessness. Combat toxic positivity by confronting and managing changes. Most people are adaptable to change—where the problems emerge is in how change is managed. Like the topic of leadership, we know what it takes to be successful with change—implementation is the real test. Design of Work Experience (DOWE) has change baked in—both in substance (learning, communication, and engagement) and process (plan, manage, measure, and sustain).
Toxic Positivity is one way that organizations self-sabotage, making survival in a challenging marketplace even more difficult. It can only continue for so long before its ill effects become too burdensome. The solutions are here, it only takes the wherewithal to make them happen. We can all do it—but do we want to?