“Oh, you should have shared this with me earlier,” a former colleague said to me. “I would have told you to show up stronger and toughen up. Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
This was her response when I finally confided to her my real reason for resigning. That I could no longer endure working for a toxic, bullying boss. I wasn’t sleeping, I had lost weight, and I had felt myself disappearing at work. My job and my manager were taking a toll on my mental and physical well-being.
And now, my former colleague’s response was the equivalent of a happy phrase from a fortune cookie, an inspirational Instagram quote, or trite advice from a self-help book. She showed up with toxic positivity in a moment when I was looking for genuine support.
Many of us are under a lot of stress at work. With companies continuing to cut workers, those who have held onto their jobs are expected to do more with less resources. Others have had to take salary cuts or accept a decrease in benefits. Some of us have been forced into roles and assignments we never signed up for. And some of us are working for toxic bosses or working with toxic colleagues, without a clear end in sight.
Toxic positivity is the idea that no matter how bad or stressful the situation, no matter how difficult the circumstances are, you can change your outcome simply by being positive and thinking positively. When we practice toxic positivity, we put the responsibility on individuals to endure and persevere in toxic, dysfunctional, and broken structures and systems. We don’t show up with compassion or empathy or allow space for expressing negative emotions. And we don’t address the real issues that impact workers.
As leaders, here’s how we can stop practicing toxic positivity in our workplaces:
1. JUST LISTEN
Too many of us have been trained to talk, talk, and talk some more. When people trust us enough to share the hurt or harm they are experiencing, they are looking for space and support to express themselves vulnerably. They want to be heard. Allow people to share what they are experiencing. This means not filling up the space with your words. This means simply listening and not jumping to judgment or conclusions, which is where toxic positivity can creep in.
If there is silence or if the person is emotional, resist the urge to talk or quickly respond. You can say, “Take your time” or “I am here to listen” or “Thank you for trusting me to share your experience” if you want to be supportive verbally and let them know you are, in fact, listening. Offering nonverbal gestures like leaning in, making eye contact, and nodding are also signs that you are not distracted and are actively listening.
2. PAUSE PROVIDING ADVICE
Some go to phrases like “Time heals all wounds” and “Your attitude is everything” and “Be grateful for what you have learned”—these are all examples of toxic positivity.
Many of us have been taught these phrases, these tidbits of positive advice, from a very young age. We may unintentionally respond with these phrases in our knee-jerk reaction to want to respond right away, to be helpful, to appear supportive, or to jump to problem-solving.
Suspend the need to respond with advice right away. By responding with toxic positivity, we minimize and can even dismiss the other person’s experience. We don’t allow room for their negative emotions. We also provide false reassurance to them when the situation they may be in is beyond their control.
3. OFFER SUPPORT
Once they have had the time and space to share, be sure to offer help and support. You can say, “I’m so sorry this is happening. How can I help you?” Or “What can I do for you today?” Or “Is there anything I can do right now?”
Be sure to take their lead, and only offer to help brainstorm solutions if they are open to it. They may need support in thinking through how to approach their manager, or asking Human Resources for help, or reviewing their roles and responsibilities. Maybe they even need help working on their résumé and LinkedIn profile to start looking for new opportunities. The key is to be genuine in your offer to help and support them in whatever way feels comfortable for them and to ensure that you follow through with your help and support.
Remember, we have a responsibility to stop toxic positivity from seeping into our workplaces. When we listen, suspending the need to respond with advice, and, instead, offer genuine support, we are showing up as the leaders our workplaces need us to be.