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In this moment of historically high turnover, keeping employee morale afloat matters more than ever.
It’s important that workers feel heard and supported, and that the culture they’re working within is a positive one. And yet, if you’ve doubled down on injecting positivity into your culture in a way that feels inauthentic, that’s going to do more harm than good.
Warnings about the perils of “toxic positivity” have been, particularly in pandemic times, on the rise. As workers have struggled to maintain productivity from home, many fearing for their job security, employers have attempted — in the midst of constant change, including recent changes in office return plans — to put an affirming face forward.
It’s a fine line to toe: being honest about uncertainty while still providing enough encouragement to keep workers engaged and motivated. But erring overly on the side of “everything’s going to be fine” messaging can read as dismissive, psychotherapist Carolyn Karoll told Healthline.
“Toxic positivity is invalidating the real hardships people face during this time,” Karoll said. “Putting one foot in front of the other is an accomplishment for many during this global pandemic. The pressure to be productive leaves many, if not most people, feeling inadequate and ashamed that they are simply trying to make it through the day.”
Not only that, but the presence of toxic positivity can lead workers to lose faith in a company’s leadership, driving them to pursue other options. If you want to be sure positivity rooted in authenticity — and not its toxic cousin — is a part of your organization’s culture, there are a few things worth focusing on, according to the experts we heard from.
1. To power (non-toxic) positivity, focus on purpose.
Embedding authentic positivity into a company’s culture often comes down to connecting employees to a sense of purpose, Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, said.
“When employees feel that what they are doing is contributing to a broader good, team members are able to act with purpose,” Sweeney said. “To implement purpose across an organization, you must communicate with your team. The company mission and vision must be shared and lived. It must be part of who and what the business is, and there must be buy-in from the team. Purpose is genuine. It creates a positive overall sentiment that yields productive work among team members for a common good.”
2. Determine what motivates people as individuals.
Assuming an entire workforce is motivated by the same, or similar, things is a serious mistake for any leader to make, Gil Brady, a coach at Core Strengths, said.
“People are individuals, with different reasons for coming to work every day,” Brady said.
“When leaders learn to recognize and understand these reasons and the motives behind them, they can communicate in a way that resonates with each individual employee, depending on what drives them. Creating a positive work environment should not be a one-size-fits-all approach.”
3. Model what positive communication, including constructive feedback, looks like.
Promoting positive communication starts by setting the right tone at the top, Edward Mellett, Founder of Wikijob. uk, said.
“Model the style of communication you believe genuinely leads to a healthy climate,” he said. “Encourage your team to talk about what constitutes good communication. Because people have different cultural backgrounds and life experiences, not everyone defines positive communication in the same way.”
Models for feedback should be given, too, as positive communication doesn’t mean the absence of difficult or branded “negative” topics. Create a culture where constructive feedback is welcomed, Kristaps Brencans, Chief Marketing Officer at On The Map, said.
“As long as it’s constructive, we want employees to speak up on things they find problematic or discouraging about their experiences, the culture, or the operation itself,” Brencans said. “We want to grow, change and improve all the time, and toxic positivity begins when it’s assumed the workplace is perfect and any potentially negative criticism is damaging to morale.”
4. Don’t bury mistakes.
One of the easiest ways to tell how authentic a company’s positivity is is in the going attitude toward mistakes. If people feel pressured to hide their mistakes and only share their “wins,” that’s a surefire recipe for toxic positivity, Stacy Lewis of Eternity Modern said.
“Mistakes are learning vehicles that encourage your staff to experiment and innovate,” Lewis said. “Your culture will be reinforced or undermined depending on how your leadership team handles mistakes. Accepting that mistakes will be made is a terrific place to start. Executives must be ready to admit that they, too, are human and will make mistakes. Employees have a right to expect exceptional leadership, but not faultless leadership.”
5. Create opportunities for people to connect outside of their role as colleagues.
Work mixers shouldn’t feel like forced “Kumbaya”-singing sessions. Ditch the canned ice breakers and instead create opportunities for team members to connect in a more natural capacity, whether in the form of a Slack channel with a fun theme or an online trivia night.
“Regular audits should be taken to evaluate how people engage with one another, how feedback is accepted and taken into account, and what possibilities for social connection are present, from coffee mornings to company outings,” Dan Close, CEO of We Buy Houses in Kentucky, said. “This allows team members to build and foster relationships outside of the workplace.”
6. Practice gratitude and appreciation; just don’t make it hokey.
Expressing thanks authentically starts with specificity. Take the time to acknowledge contributions in a way that falls outside the generic “you crushed it” scope, Daniel Carter, SEO Manager at Snowpads, said, and do it as a group.
“Each week at our agency, we start with a 15-minute all-hands team meeting with team praises as the first item on the agenda,” Carter said. “Giving employees a platform to publicly express their gratitude for one another boosts group morale, sets a pleasant tone for the week, and makes people feel appreciated and valued. Beginning with gratitude establishes the goal of appreciation, which will spread across the company.”
Make use of online tools to keep recognition regular, too, Nate Tsang, CEO of WallStreetZen, said.
“You should have at least one Slack channel where workers can recognize each other for achievements both big and small using specific hashtags and discussing what happened,” he said. “Managers and executives can see what great work is being done and recognize it further through small rewards that mean a lot in remote work.”
Find more advice on boosting your company’s culture on the blog.
7. Listen actively.
As a leader, you should be giving your employees the space to share their thoughts and feelings often, Scott Hasting, Co-Founder of BetWorthy, said.
“In order to create a truly positive environment, listening actively without constantly pushing one’s opinion is necessary,” he said. “There is a difference between listening, then butting in constantly to insert your own thoughts and experiences, and just listening to someone share their own stories. I had a former boss in my previous job who would ask how we were doing, but instead of letting us tell him about our day, he would just go on and talk about his. Steer clear from this type of listening if you really want to create a non-toxic environment.”
8. Avoid the “silver lining” approach.
When employees express fears and frustrations, resist the urge to cap things off with a positive take. Instead, “let people feel how they feel,” David Bitton, CMO of DoorLoop, said.
“Frustration, anger, and despair are unavoidable emotions,” he said. “Companies often follow the norm of shifting these feelings toward more positive ones, resulting in toxic positivity, which corrodes a healthy work environment. While negative emotions can be disruptive, they can also catalyze opportunities for change. For example, if employee resentment rises, executives may recognize that they must address certain management issues they wouldn’t have uncovered if employees were always told to stay cheerful.”
9. Find the humor whenever you can.
Working adults in the U.S. are experiencing a “laughter drought,” according to research reported in the Harvard Business Review. And that has negative consequences on everything from motivation to mental health. To promote authentic positivity, find and facilitate humor at work as often as you can, Tal Shelef, Co-Founder of Condo Wizard, said.
“Work is stressful at times, and being able to lighten the mood in bad circumstances is a useful asset,” Shelef said. “The primary goal should, of course, be to address the problem, but a new viewpoint and a positive approach are more constructive than the opposite. Remember, rarely do people prosper unless they’re having fun in what they’re doing. If you can manage to look on the bright side and show your staff that you care, they will reciprocate by working even harder.”