The dangers of enforcing positivity in the workplace
The Sector > Workforce > Leadership > Sometimes it isn’t always rosy – the danger of enforcing constant positivity at work

Sometimes it isn’t always rosy – the danger of enforcing constant positivity at work

by Freya Lucas

March 29, 2023
a pink sign reading 'plant seeds of positivity' is shown on a wooden fence.

While it’s understandable that organisations who work with children and families have a preference for a workplace which is full of employees who are happy, cheerful and positive at all times, this expectation, author Harvey Deutschendorf has explained, is not only unrealistic, it’s potentially dangerous. 


Instead, he argues, emotions should be seen as neutral, neither good nor bad. Rather, it’s what people do with their emotions that matters. Being forced to suppress negative emotions in the workplace, he believes, doesn’t make them go away. Rather, it drives them underground, where they fester, grow, and become stronger.


Mr Deutschendorf said that organisations that set the expectation that negative emotions are wrong and do not belong at work ultimately set themselves up for volatile toxic cultures. Although it may be complex to deal with difficult emotions in a professional context, he continued, organisations shouldn’t shrink from them or ignore them, but should instead work towards a culture where employees have the freedom to express themselves in a way that improves a given situation rather than making it worse.


Leaders who are able to see all of the emotions expressed by their teams – both positive and negative – as information on issues which need to be addressed to grow a healthy team will ultimately be successful. When emotions are out in the open, there’s then an opportunity to work through them, and to boost morale and productivity. 


Active listening, Mr Deutschendorf believes, is one approach that can lead to all emotions being dealt with in a productive manner. 


During active listening, the primary goal is mutual understanding, even when the speaker has strong feelings. Rather than listening to respond, the listener listens to understand. Sometimes, all the speaker needs is to feel heard, and when they feel heard, the strong emotion which goes along with the moment can dissipate. 


Simply prioritising active listening may seem like an easy fix, however for many leaders, their ‘listening muscles’ must be worked and stretched, and listening needs to be viewed both as an art and a science. 


Teams who are able to intentionally build time and space to listen deeply to one another will have a strong culture, which in turn boosts outcomes in other areas. When people know that emotions which may be perceived as negative – such as fear, anger or sadness – are able to be dealt with in a calm and helpful way, they develop a sense of psychological safety.


“When acknowledging someone’s tough emotions, it’s important not to get defensive or hide behind emails or other technology. Often the best way to deal with difficult emotions is in person,” Mr Deutschendorf said.


He favours ‘human-to-human’ communication, avoiding the kind of fake positivity which comes from emails and other electronic communication. 


Adi Y. Segal, CEO of Hapi, a digital platform which provides certifications in listening, said this human-to-human connection can help employers to avoid situations where the pressure to maintain a positive attitude can also lead to a lack of authenticity in the workplace, as employees may feel like they have to put on a facade rather than being their true selves.


“Ultimately, toxic positivity can create a toxic work environment that can negatively impact an employee’s mental health and work performance. In essence, toxic positivity is the opposite of creating an open listening environment at work,” Mr Segal added. 


In fraught situations, where the emotional climate is too volatile or uncomfortable, he recommends that all parties take some time away to cool off. 


A period of separation that allows emotions to calm down will lead to a greater chance of a conversation being a productive learning opportunity, he continued.


While dealing with the difficult emotions of others can be a complex thing in a professional context, if handled well, the person who expressed these emotions could learn valuable information about themselves and appreciate that someone was there for them to listen and offer support.


“Someone with difficult emotions may be an employee who cares deeply and wants to give their best to an organisation,” Mr Deutschendorf said in closing. 


“If they feel supported and listened to, they may develop a healthy respect for the leader who had the courage to not ignore or deny their emotions. In this way, embracing difficult emotions can help build loyal and productive teams. “


Deutschendorf’s book The Other Kind of Smart is available using the link provided. This piece is based on an article that first appeared in Fast Company. Access the original here

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