False positives and the dangers of unrealistic positivity at work

positivity at workThe vaccine rollout is well on its way, the Government has set out its road map for easing lockdown and it seems there is light at the end of the tunnel. Organisations can hopefully now start to shift mindsets away from the negativity of the past months and create a positive outlook for the future. So, should leaders and managers now be pasting on the smiles, dishing out the motivational pep talks and inspirational emails? Should they aim to create a sense of positivity at work. No, most definitely not.

While they can be easily confused to be one and the same, there is in fact big (and vital) differences between cheeriness and positivity.

Recently, increasingly more social media posts have been going against the grain of calls for gratitude and gratefulness. Instead, they are highlighting the potential issues that such asks can in fact cause. The problem is that expecting people to be happy or grateful puts them under pressure to feel a certain way (and in a global pandemic, it is likely everyone is currently facing some kind of difficulty). If people don’t feel positive, it can make them feel ashamed or that they have failed somehow.

The same holds true in the workplace. Being told to look on the bright side or having to feign always being in a good mood can in fact create a culture of toxic positivity.


Take the good with the bad

While the 21st June may shine as a possible beacon of hope, we’re not out of the woods just yet, and it will not be like waving a magic wand. Not to add a down note, but new challenges may still come; employees may still struggle and have bad days. More importantly, failing to recognise this will not sit well with employees. Pure but blind optimism is not a viable option. Expecting employees to put on a happy face throughout their working day and ignoring any issues will simply allow resentment to build up underneath. Eventually, those may bubble over and create more harm than if they were addressed earlier. Not to mention the possible impact on employees’ mental health.

Instead, building true positivity is about facing up to those negative feelings, not trying to push them away. Only by acknowledging and accepting them can we take a step towards real positivity. Afterall, no one can help how they feel, and no emotion is inherently good or bad; they’re all simply human.


Perception not peppiness

In times of turmoil, it is believed that employees want leaders to be calm and confident. And it is understandable why many leadership teams take this stance to help inspire and motivate employees. However, there is a very thin line to tread between being calm and confident and seeming to be uncaring. Employees may be pushed away rather than encouraged. Business-as-usual can instead be interpreted as the business above all else – especially above the needs and problems of employees.

Rather than plastering on that smile, leaders and managers need to get in touch with their deeply human sides and to demonstrate that employees are safe and supported, so employees feel comfortable expressing their emotions and talking about any difficulties. Leaders themselves may well be facing problems or struggling with their emotions. Leading by example and being able to be honest and share that can encourage employees to also open up. It is alright (and should be encouraged) for everyone – employees and leaders alike – to show their real and vulnerable sides.


Authentic positivity in 2021

Empathy seemed to be the buzzword of 2020, but it was brought to the forefront of organisations for a reason and it should remain there. Understanding leadership allows for employees to be themselves – not having to pretend to feel a certain way that they don’t. Managers and leaders need to put in extra effort into understanding their people and seeing difficulties from their perspectives — everyone will be facing very different challenges right now. Leaders, in particular, are in an exposed position and cannot appear to be disconnected or to not be listening to their people.

During times of change it is worth remembering that what look likes a people problem is a situation problem. What looks like laziness is often exhaustion and what looks like resistance is often a lack of clarity. This comes through when leaders are truly listening.

Forced smiles and cheeriness will not create a positive work environment. Quite the opposite is true. But through enabling employees to open up about negative emotions, to deal with personal struggles and creating an environment of authenticity and empathy, organisations can produce real (and much longer-lasting) positivity. As a result, this can help people and businesses look and push forward as we head towards another possible new phase of the working world this summer.