What Is 'Toxic Positivity'? Plus How To Avoid It At Work
What exactly does 'toxic positivity' look like, and why should leaders avoid it like fire?
"At times, it is perceived as a given that one should always strive to stay upbeat and optimistic at work," shares psychologist and International Islamic University Malaysia assistant professor Dr Pamilia Lourdunathan. "However, telling a person who is coping with emotional loneliness, mental stress and pandemic fatigue during the lockdown to look at the bright side can be unhelpful and dangerous psychologically.
"Well-intended phrases such as ‘it could be worse', ‘stay positive’ or even ‘be thankful’ shuts off further conversations about one’s emotional state," she adds, reiterating the danger of tacitly ignoring team members' struggles.
"The past year, we've witnessed a lot of stress, anxiety, burnout, and worse still, suicide cases on the rise," says Edwin Wang, founder of e-commerce wellness platform Signature Market. "Mindset is the key in creating an innovative world-class company in Malaysia. It's not about fancy colourful bean bags or a fun ping pong table in the office. It's about how the leadership team treats their greatest asset, which is their employees."
When managing a team, these simple and purposeful changes could make a world of difference in creating a more authentic company culture free of 'toxic positivity'.
Modelling healthy behaviour to your team
"Employers can help boost their employees’ morale by modelling healthy behaviours, specifically on handling emotions in healthy ways," says Lourdunathan. "It helps to continually remind your staff to maintain a work-life balance and to schedule time for self-care while also practicing this yourself."
Wang, a proponent of conscious living, adds: "We can't teach what we've never experienced; at Signature Marketplace, we promote the concept of conscious living internally via workshops and even gratitude journals—everyone in the company gets a guided gratitude journal and is encouraged to use it."
Create a safe space to express and acknowledge struggles
Acknowledging someone's pain is a simple act that can go a long way. Rather than telling employees to focus on the positives when they reach out for help or express their struggles, leaders must learn to normalise these mental health challenges and create a safe space where people learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
"It's also helpful when employers aren't afraid to show their vulnerability and their sincere emotions while having personal disclosures with their employees," adds Lourdunathan. "This creates a safe space at work for every employee to understand that they don't always have to be perfect."
Check in often on team members, not just for work tasks
Moving forward, strive for a balance: give employees space to embrace their feelings, but also check in to show them they are not alone. When conducting regular one-to-one meetings with your employees, using phrases like "Let's work through this together" or "It's ok not to be ok" can shift the focus from the problems to the steps that can be taken to improve them. Organising support group sessions is another way to boost team morale.
Practicse grounded gratitude with your team
"Grounded gratitude is finding the balance between acknowledging the pain and making space for gratitude in order to form balanced emotional responses. It shifts the sufferer’s attention towards achieving a more positive outcome," says Lourdunathan.
"Practicing grounded gratitude as a leader is very important because it brings you to the neutral, present moment," adds Wang. "Having that mindset of gratitude gives everyone the space to improve and grow instead of being stuck in a particular label because of past mistakes."