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Does Your Boss Practice Toxic Positivity?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Mita Mallick for Harvard Business Review. To read the complete article, check out others, sign up for email alerts, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Illustration Credit: HBR Staff; the_burtons/Getty Images   

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“Let’s add another million dollars to the forecast this year,” said our vice president excitedly. In our team meeting, he stood up and shouted, “We can do this! I believe in you! Let’s get it done!” while clapping his hands. Walking around the conference room, he alternated between patting team members on the back and offering fist pumps.

My colleague and I looked at each other in disbelief. Our head of supply chain had just alerted us that our latest product was selling faster than we could produce it, and one of our facilities could no longer produce this particular product at all. Our VP knew all of this, yet he forced us to add an additional million dollars to the forecast. No amount of wishful thinking, positive vibes, or can-do attitude could get us to meet this new forecast target.

This was just one of many examples of working for this leader, who wasn’t simply optimistic — he was filled with toxic positivity.

Being happy and positive at work can be a win-win for employees and organizations. An extensive Saïd Business School study showed that employees are 13% more productive when happy. According to Shawn Achor, the author of The Happiness Advantage, positivity in the workplace, grounded in gratitude and appreciation, can lead to three times more creativity, 23% fewer fatigue symptoms, and 37% greater sales. And finally, Better Up, one of the largest mental health and coaching startups, offers that a positive mindset can strengthen people’s leadership skills as well as boost their ability to problem solve and adapt to change.

But what happens when your boss weaponizes positivity?

Time and time again over the course of my career I’ve seen leaders practice toxic positivity. No matter how bad or stressful the situation is or how difficult the circumstances, they convince themselves that simply acting happy or thinking positively will change the outcome — then spread this toxic positivity to their teams. By doing so, they put the responsibility on individuals to try to survive and persevere in broken and dysfunctional environments, without addressing the root causes at hand.

How can you tell the difference between a boss who is optimistic, thinks positively, and coaches and inspires their team and one who practices toxic positivity? Here are three red flags to watch for.

They surround themselves with yes people.

“We won’t take no for an answer,” one sales leader I used to work with would always say. “No is not an option.” He also surrounded himself with yes people: People who did not challenge or question recommendations or directives that didn’t make sense. During my time working with them, this team consistently overpromised and underdelivered. The sales leader had infected his team with toxic positivity; they believed anything was possible, even in the face of real business obstacles. They were actually shielding themselves from reality.

On the rare occasions he was challenged, he evoked military analogies: “Some of the greatest generals never retreated from the battlefield. We are staying on the field.” He was always positive, smiling, and upbeat when delivering these repetitive messages, leaving many wondering whether the behavior was actually harmful since he wasn’t screaming and yelling.

“As a leader, you have to balance optimism with a dose of realism,” offers Sonali Pai, founder of Grapefruit Beauty Collective. She continues:

I want to inspire my team to push for more than we thought we could achieve. And at the same time, if there are real roadblocks in the way, like a customer shipment was held up in customs, or we didn’t produce enough of a new innovation, or our talent is sick and can no longer participate in the photo shoot, positive platitudes aren’t going to help. I need to be there with my team, rolling up our sleeves and getting to work together to problem solve and to fix this situation.

As Pai says, an optimistic leader will be balanced in positive and realistic thinking. They will be willing to hear about what’s not working, to problem solve with the team, and to pivot when necessary. They’ll take no for an answer and accept that failure is an option. Once leaders accept failure, they can reevaluate what to do differently next time around.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Mita Mallick is the author of Reimagine Inclusion, a Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller. She is currently the head of DEI at Carta. She is a LinkedIn Top Voice, cohost of The Brown Table Talk podcast, and her writing has been published in Fast Company, The New York Post, and Adweek.
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