Q: How do I identify my organization’s culture? What is “toxic positivity” and how can I tell if it is affecting my company? Are there ways to change that?
A: If you’re unsure about your company’s culture, one of the most important and valuable things you can do is have a conversation with the most senior people at the organization and ask them what the culture is that they aspire to and if they think the organization is at that point now. Ask people at different levels to find out if there is agreement on the aspirational culture and the actual culture, if people see movement one way or another, and for examples of how they see that demonstrated. For example, if an organization says, “We value our employees,” and there are no examples of employee recognition, then they might aspire to that, but they’re not taking actions to make it a reality.
You ask about toxic positivity, which suggests that you’re considering if it could a part of the culture at your organization. Toxic positivity, a relatively newly developed phrase, suggests that there’s a bright side to everything, and that dwelling on the negative is useless. While looking at the bright side can sound wonderful, it is not realistic. Failures provide an opportunity to learn. If leaders are not acknowledging and analyzing failures, then they don’t conduct reviews of bad outcomes to understand why they’ve happened because they don’t want to dwell on it. In fact, learning from failure, loss, and even negative experiences gives management the opportunity to discover how things can be improved. Choosing not to “dwell” on them doesn’t allow for learning, and just as importantly, it doesn’t allow people to have the emotional reaction they may need in order to process what went wrong.
You may be able to identify toxic positivity in the way your organization talks about the pandemic. If someone says, “I’m struggling with COVID right now, I’m really challenged by working remotely,” and their manager’s reaction is, “Well, the vaccine is coming,” then the response doesn’t address how difficult the situation actually is. There may be ways to improve the situation, or perhaps just to be supportive and agree that this is difficult, before even thinking about other more active ways to support the employee. When you see a leader “brushing off others’ feelings and reactions” and responding with a Pollyanna-style response, toxic positivity has arrived.
Another example is if a salesperson who is experiencing the loss of a customer or the loss of a proposal might say, “Oh, next one, I’ll win!” When this happens, the manager and the organization loses the opportunity to review what happened, how to improve that salesperson’s performance, and how to teach other salespeople from that negative situation. While you don’t want that individual or the organization to focus only on the negative for an extended period of time, recognizing what can be improved is a significant benefit.
Often, when someone makes other people slow down to look at the positive or to add, “You may have lost this, but you still have that…” In their eagerness to minimize the negative impact, they limit a person’s ability to process the loss. If you’re facing someone like this and you don’t know how to respond, you can simply take their positivity in good faith while still allowing for the conversation to acknowledge the lows. Without belittling their comment, you might say, “I really appreciate your positive outlook here, but before we get there, let’s take a look at how we can learn from this situation.” Asking managers to help individual performers and asking senior leaders to help managers use loss and negative situations as the opportunity to learn, will be the most powerful solution to toxic positivity.