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Many companies need to know how to avoid toxic positivity in their workplace culture, so here are some insights, tips and pointers to help.
I do a lot of teamwork building and executive coaching with lots of companies – both small and larhe. And it’s interesting to see how over the course of the last decade, workplaces are becoming more and more focused on improving workplace culture.
This has been encouraged by the need to retain and attract top talent, but also spurred on by the arrival of tense issues such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
More than ever, companies see the need to sustain goodwill within their ranks. Plus companies try to make sure that the proper people get their due. It turns out, after all, that employees are people, and deserve to be treated with respect.
That said – it’s also important to note that some companies can go overboard here. Don’t get this wrong, their efforts are usually performed with good intentions and care, and make a far cry from how many management structures have in the past.
Yet it’s also important to note that in some cases, toxic positivity is absolutely a trait that can cause company culture to feel stifled. And in some cases, toxic positivity can suppress the natural human qualities within a team.
No worries – I’m here to help.
As you might know, I am a bestselling wellness author with about 2 million books sold globally. Plus I founded a groundbreaking video course called The Anxiety Cure. I love sharing insights and strategies to help people and companies to work at their peak potential. So I put together this article with actionable tips to avoid toxic positivity in your workplace.
In this post, I will discuss what these traits are, how to avoid them, and what alternatives may be appropriate.
It’s important to remember that people are people. They have a full range of emotions. Stopping hate speech, discriminatory language and aggressive talk is of course essential. And this will no doubt be discussed in your code of conduct. Plus it’s important to make sure that you don’t just round off the edges of pointed criticisms as necessary.
Some firms, for example, may seek to replace terms that seem to point towards conflict or disagreements. Or terms that unnecessarily prevent them from being used in the interest of making company culture ‘nicer.’
For instance, some companies have been interested in changing words like ‘disagreements’ and instead, calling them ‘points of contention.’
Meanwhile other companies have replaced ‘firing’ with ‘parting ways.’
In some cases, referring to a group of people as ‘guys’ has been discouraged, although an overwhelming majority of people have never and will never see this as a problem. This may seem minor. But often capable staff can look at a recommended guide of new terms, and if they seem to be needlessly patronizing, will instantaneously tire of it. Rather than treat the seeming symptoms of poor company culture, address the root causes.
Note that this doesn’t mean ignoring the correct use of terms applied to be more accurate, such as referring to certain demographics in the correct, respectful manner – like ‘employees of color,’ which is generally considered to be appropriate and a proper term to use. As you can see, there’s an important line to strike here.
It’s not uncommon to see harrowing footage of department store employees being corralled together for a morning-shift warm-up, where a plucky manager instructs the others to dance or to sing the song of the store to wake up and get ready for the shift.
Managers motivating employees is necessary from time to time. But we don’t need to intrude on their dignity to do that. Some companies, for instance, ask for their employees to partake in TikTok dances or the production of online content in order to promote their brand. This might sound fun on the surface. But that’s not the case for everyone.
Team-building exercises are best applied when solving tasks co-operatively, often at a retreat designed for this very purpose. Don’t force that family atmosphere. It will develop on its own.
It’s important to reward your staff with care, and to make sure that this counts. Too many companies think that year-round award shows are great. But there’s no real value in being labelled the best receptionist of the year if this isn’t met with a worthwhile reward.
But why only make employee rewards take place once a year? With employee recognition software perfectly designed to transfer appreciation from one employee to the other with associated cash rewards. Plus you can systemize better habits for working together. Or inspire employees to go out of their way. Plus motivate the willingness for teams to try harder. When you make rewards proportional and worth earning, employees are incentivized to chase them.
Some of us have worked under bosses that try too hard to be our friend. They attempt to gain respect and co-operation through constant praise and trying overly hard to show us we’re just like them. Of course, on the surface there’s nothing wrong with this. It can actually be quite nice to have someone showcase that they’re here to support you.
That said, a boss is not necessarily an intimate friend. They are someone who needs to manage you responsibly, and listen to your concerns. They need to help guide your action and direct your career, so they can help you achieve your peak performance. As a result, the right balance of friendship is appropriate. And a boss should give praise when it’s truly earned. This way, employees really know when they’ve achieved, and are liable to try and do that again. If everything they do seems rosy, why would they try to improve?
This could be considered a part B to the prior insight. Basically, this tip is about the dangers of becoming overfamiliar with your staff. When familiarity is overdone, it can be discomfort. There’s no reason as to why a manager needs to ask about the dating life of an employee they manage. And there’s no reason they need to ‘roast’ them gently in the name of humor. You should only do this if you have known someone for many years and you are secure in the relationship.
Remember that employees are professionals, no matter how long they are with you. You should expect a code of conduct from them. And so it’s important that we live up to the ideals we hold, too. If you can achieve that, then you’ll avoid toxic overfamiliarity, and instead give them the professional respect they deserve.
Well-intentioned businesses can sometimes fall into the trap of systemizing wellbeing efforts in the worst way. Look at what has happened to mindfulness. This meditation practice has been shown to increase emotional regulation, improve alertness, reduce stress, and enhance focus.
In many cases, then, companies incentivize mindfulness meditation as a tool to improve productivity, be that investing in classes, giving staff time to meditate as part of their lunch hour, or simply discussing its benefits as a necessary part of managing a day. But this ancient discipline of meditation is a self-improvement tool, not a corporate tool to get the best out of your employees.
Encouraging and educating about this, of course, could be a great idea, but mandating it or sending people on retreats, as some firms have, takes a complex practice and reduces it to another tool intended to artificially increase the satisfaction of your employees.
One toxic trait that some managers can express is thinking that their willingness to create reward schemes, to help with positive work safety, and to make the space more welcoming and inclusive will necessarily make things perfect.
These are good steps of course, but your employees still have bad days. They may be a bit withdrawn from time to time. They will still become ill, and they can still be overworked. Some companies seem to think that positive affirmations and a range of investments somehow mean that their workforce has nothing to complain about, because they’ve pre-emptively handled all of the problems in advance.
Of course, this is not true. Understanding this can keep us vigilant, listening to feedback, and willing to improve where appropriate. Over time, this impression will help you stay effective, and never rest on your laurels when it comes to managing staff well from day to day.
When it comes to improving the company culture and setting of your workplace, it’s important to remember that keeping the rules simple is essential. A zero-tolerance policy for bullying, harassment or discrimination of any kind is essential. You can apply that without having to write in a range of different nuances in the interest of being stringent.
The same goes for certain policies in place. For example, you should ensure that safety equipment is inspected and properly stored before being used again. Keep it memorable. Don’t think you can out-policy your way through issues. If you think this, then you can keep staff feeling frustrated in their work and unable to remain productive. Workplace culture should be something that grows naturally. You should very gently push things in the right direction over time. After all, you don’t want employees to worry about things every single moment of the day. A perfect approach like that can help strike a nice balancing point. Basically, you need to keep open to criticism and feedback.
With this advice, you’re certain to properly avoid toxic positivity even in your workplace culture. While positivity of this nature is often applied in good faith by caring managers, you must stay open to thinking through the full implications of your workplace habits, rules and philosophies.
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