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Why a ‘happy face’ culture can backfire at work

A “cup half full” mentality can be an asset in the workplace. But, when any negative thoughts or legitimate concerns are discouraged, positivity can turn toxic.

Cheerful creative business colleagues sitting at conference table while looking away in board roomFinding a way to check in with employees—for whatever reason—can go a long way toward averting false positivity (Getty Images/Maskot)

A culture of positivity is generally welcomed in the workplace and for good reason. Research has shown, for example, that happiness increases productivity. But can you ever have too much of a good thing? Sometimes. When everyone is expected to put a happy face on everything, no matter what, positivity can turn toxic. And that can be detrimental to morale. 

“Toxic positivity is a half-baked attempt at making someone feel better by focusing on positive emotions,” says one article. “Think of it like dulling down someone’s struggles or problems by telling them it can be solved with positive thinking or focusing on something else.”

It’s fairly easy to spot because toxic positivity is often based on one-liners. As one article points out, “When someone says, ‘I’m having a rough day’, and you respond with ‘Just be happy!”, your lack of acknowledging their pain makes it seem like you weren’t even listening.”

POSITIVITY AND THE PANDEMIC

Paradoxically, COVID-19 has brought a tsunami of positivity, especially to social media. As psychiatrist Margaret Seide points out, “We are being bombarded with ideas about how this time should be used to write a novel, learn a new language and find our zen, and that we are somehow failing if we are not doing these things.”

Nora McInerny, host of the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking and author of books such as It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), expresses a similar view. As she points out in a podcast hosted by psychologist Amy Morin, “Right now we live in a culture that wants us to perform every aspect of our lives in a way that is really unnatural. And we are very adept at performing happiness.”

LEADERSHIP AND TOXIC POSITIVITY

Leaders can also be guilty of indulging in excess positivity. As CPA Michael Kravshik, founder of Luminari, points out, “If you paint a positive picture that doesn’t mesh with reality, you will create false expectations—and that will come back to hurt you.” 

Kravshik adds that in extreme situations, false positivity can turn into dishonesty. “Say, for example, that a company is having cash-flow problems but pretends everything is fine. Then one day you go to work and the CEO announces, ‘Sorry but we’re going into bankruptcy.’ I’ve seen that happen far too many times.”

HOW TO AVOID THE PITFALLS

Fortunately, you can create a positive culture without going overboard. Here are some tips. 

Be honest about the organization’s situation. As Kravshik points out, transparency is key. “At Luminari, we have found that an open approach has served us well. People trust us so, when we are facing a big challenge, they will put more effort into solving that problem than they otherwise would.”

Accept negative emotions. It’s important to accept negative emotions (or a range of emotions, both happy and sad) as a natural part of life. In fact, a 2018 study showed that people who habitually avoid acknowledging challenging emotions can end up feeling worse. As Morin puts it, “You don’t have to look for every silver lining.” 

McInerny agrees: “Get your hopes as high as they can [on a good day] because you won’t feel like this forever. And also feel as sad as you need to on your down days because this is also not forever.”

Be compassionate with yourself first. As a leader, it’s important to listen to others, but you need to look after yourself, too. CPA Richa Khanna, a partner at Baker Tilly, took on so much in the early days of the pandemic that, by July, she was suffering from burnout

“Suddenly, I couldn’t get out of bed. Worse still, I was ashamed of feeling that way.” But after openly airing her feelings with her spouse, a mentor and others, Khanna learned that it was OK not to want to “do it all’ every day. “I also learned that I didn’t need to punish myself for it,” she says. 

Create touchpoints. Finding a way to check in with employees—for whatever reason—can go a long way toward averting false positivity. At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, Khanna reached out regularly to team members just to see how they were doing. Also, when she found she was having trouble coping herself, she shared her feelings with other employees, thereby encouraging them to relate. “They would say, ‘So you’re living the kind of life I have been living?’”

Acknowledge individual circumstances. Both Khanna and Kravshik underline the importance of individualization. As Kravshik put it, “It’s all about being empathetic to the different situations people are facing.” Khanna agrees. “Early on in the pandemic, for example, we identified staff who were having challenges in working from home and made sure they would be among those who were brought back first once we had a back-to-work policy in place.” 

Bring in an open door—and open floor—policy. Part of being transparent is providing what Kravshik calls the “psychological safety” for employees to air their concerns. “Last week, for example, a team member came to me after a meeting and told me I could have handled a particular topic in a different way,” says Kravshik. “And I was really happy that she did, because this allowed me to see a different perspective, and hopefully become a better manager. So, in a team meeting, I gave her a thumbs up for doing what she did. In this way, I hoped to really impart the idea that speaking up is not only accepted but encouraged.”

NOT ALL POSITIVITY IS TOXIC

At the end of the day, it’s possible to have positivity without toxicity. As Gregg Brown, a change specialist and speaker, puts it, “It’s really all about balancing dualities: yin and yang, up and down, left and right, and, of course, positive and negative. It might be a fine balancing act but, as a leader, you can do it.”

FIND WORK-LIFE BALANCE 

Learn to recognize burnout—and how to avoid it. Plus, read ways to keep your work-life boundaries intact and carve out a productive daily schedule.

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