The danger of toxic positivity when it comes to leading a team

Smiley faces mixed with sad faces on sticky notes.

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In a lot of the leadership coaching work I do, I am often asked to join meetings (either in person or on-line) to ‘observe the leader in action’. Last week one leader invited me to join his 2023 kickoff team meeting online. But it wasn’t so much for me to watch him run his meeting; he actually wanted an external pair of eyes to observe the engagement of his team members, and more specifically to see if I could identify any ‘flight risks’ (or, coming back to our most recent piece – quiet quitters) in the room. 

I dialed in and watched the meeting unfold as he painted a very positive and upbeat picture of the state of the business and his big vision for the year ahead. When it came to my ‘mission’, though, it felt strange. It wasn’t so much a case of detecting any flight risks; I struggled to observe anyone in the team (I think there were about 15 people on the call) who seemed even remotely interested in what he was saying. In fact, throughout his 45-minute ‘2023 outlook’, a handful of team members even went completely off camera. 

At the end of the meeting, he waited until it was just the two of us left in the Zoom room, and the big (somewhat exaggerated) smile suddenly disappeared, and he sat slumped and deflated looking at me (almost fearful) from his home office in South Carolina. 

“What’s up?”, I asked, surprised to see this unexpected shift in his character. 

“I’m probably going to have to let a handful of people go this week”, he replied. “Things aren’t exactly as I just made them appear to be. I feel horrible, but I thought if you could identify anyone who appeared to be disenfranchised, then it might make my decision easier”. 

I let the silence hang there for a moment before taking a deep breath and sharing my candid observations from the meeting. I tried not to dwell on the overall team disengagement for too long, before quickly turning the conversation to the danger of toxic positivity when leading a team. 

What he hadn’t realised, was that there were already several people in his team who clearly didn’t trust what he had to say; and by letting four or five people go within a few days of saying things like, “we’re going to crush it” and “smash it out of the park” would undoubtedly result in a lack of trust right across the board. 

When the going gets tough, there are many leaders who will try far too hard to pretend everything’s fine or to put a positive spin on every situation as opposed to accepting the reality that sometimes things just don’t quite go according to plan. 

From a workplace (organisational) perspective, it appears that the researchers would describe two aspects to toxic positivity. Firstly, an excessive and distorted form of positive thinking, putting a positive spin on every situation, no matter how dire or tragic; and secondly, repeatedly telling struggling or doubtful team members to look on the bright side or to find the silver lining in a difficult situation. 

Leaders who are overly encouraging or who are afraid of having difficult conversations and making tough decisions are ultimately introducing as much toxicity into their team as if they were accepting bullying or creating a culture where people didn’t feel heard. 

I remember working with a candidate many years ago who was desperate to leave her workplace. When I asked her why, she was quick to reply (and apologies for the mild cursing here), “I’m sick of being constantly baffled with bullsh*t. This company needs to accept that we’re not clueless. Clearly, they’re the delusional ones if they think ‘the universe is a perfect place’ or that ‘things always happen for a reason’. They just need to learn to accept that life isn’t perfect”. 

We’ve talked about authentic and transparent leadership before

Being an authentic leader means being open and honest with your employees even if this makes you feel somewhat exposed or vulnerable.   

Remember that vulnerability is one of the most valuable traits of leaders today.  

Of course, nobody wants to be kept entirely in the dark. Transparent leadership helps to eliminate employees’ fear of the unknown as well as any unnecessary nasty surprises.   

Your team members want to know (and have the right to know) the status quo inside the business.

They would rather know if things aren’t going according to plan rather than being blatantly lied to or potentially blindsided, particularly if the bad news could impact their future within the organisation.  

For some reason, there are still many leaders responsible for teams today who view transparency as a weakness; who feel that if they are transparent about the state of the business, that they are losing control and the power they may otherwise have had by keeping negative news away from the team, or by always keeping their cards close to their chest. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

What will a team of intelligent employees think when together they come to the realisation that all they are hearing is fake news? Or, if their own work-related challenges are being brushed aside with comments like “it’s a blessing in disguise”, “it’s tough out there for everyone”, or “better luck next time”? 

There’s a big difference between genuine optimism and forced, toxic, or delusional optimism. 

The experts in organisational development have found that when employees see their leaders sharing the challenges they (or the business) are facing, they are about ten times more likely to stick around.

Focusing on trying to force a state of constant positivity doesn’t make employees happy. It can, in fact, make them anxious while at the same time breeding a culture of distrust. 

We’ve also previously written about leadership challenges in a VUCA world, one of which is about learning how to embrace comfort in discomfort – in other words setting the tone that it’s OK not to be OK. 

And at times when juggling a lot of uncertainty, the leader’s role as messenger is never easy. Your team members want to know how the changes will impact them and you might not always have the answers they are looking for, but you still need to show support for the change(s) while also showing that you care about how your team might be affected.  

Any leader guiding a team through a challenging time will also find themselves playing the role of coach – supporting the reactions of the individual team members and the responses of the team as a whole while simultaneously trying to maintain a sense of status quo. 

Masking the reality of the situation by putting a positive spin on it won’t help. 

If you feel you might be guilty of embracing relentless positivity, or of putting on rose-coloured glasses perhaps a bit too often, try to understand that your team members aren’t seeing you as the leader they need and want to see. 

Accepting the reality of the situation is much better for your own mental health than denial and the associated cover up. And it’s also better for the mental health of your team. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders steer clear of toxic positivity when managing their teams. 

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