Can creating a relentlessly positive culture actually be toxic?
CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Management Today
To those of a certain generation, being ‘cruel to be kind’ was perfectly justifiable. Social norms have changed, thankfully, and workplaces have filtered out those managers for whom this phrase was a personal motto – but has office life been replaced by the tyranny of ‘niceness’? Are people being relentlessly upbeat and overly optimistic, while shying away from the grittiness of errors, poor performance and failure to press for uncomfortable answers?
Tamara Littleton, a boss at a social media management company, thinks so. It was only after a doomed attempt to set up an Australian office that she learned that the rest of her team had never been behind it. However, in a culture of positivity, no-one felt empowered to share their misgivings. “I created a cordial culture where everyone agreed to a bad decision,” she says. “The ethos was too nice. We’d bred ‘toxic positivity’.”
Elva Ainsworth, an MD, explains the challenge. “There is absolutely a dilemma that faces leaders when it comes to establishing culture. People try to avoid being overly aggressive or dismissive because it carries the risk of being accused of bullying – but being overly nice implies everything is ok when it really isn’t.”
So, should office cultures be less sugar-coated and more antagonistic?
Some believe ‘nice’ workplace cultures have undermined perfectly normal conflict. “Toxic positivity is just that, and has no place in the workplace,” argues Stacey Kane, business development lead at a builders’ merchant. “Prioritising the necessity of maintaining a constant state of positivity can make employees feel less secure about disagreeing with specific initiatives. It may also encourage leaders to lie, or sweep issues under the rug.”
Dr Sam Mather, author of Rise Together, agrees. “An exclusively positive workplace, where saccharine niceties prevail, and any glimmer of negativity or cynicism is swiftly smothered, can result in a reduction of employee wellbeing and resilience. In an environment of ‘toxic positivity’, employees can feel less psychologically safe.”
But neither should we return to the harsher ways of the past. “We should absolutely not be asking managers to stop being nice to their teams,” says Nick Matthews, vice president EMEA, of a software company. “In a workplace that is becoming more human-centric, it would feel wrong to ask any manager to dial up, or down, any natural human emotion when human connection is now a crucial part of the employee experience.”
Finding the middle ground
However, it is possible to find a happier middle ground. Managers need to create a culture of approachability, and environments where constructive discussions can take place. “We call this ‘playing the ball, not the person’,” says Richard Exon, founder of a creative agency. “It’s legitimate to create a culture where forthright conversations can be had – and, indeed, these should be promoted – but the key is to also create rules that mean things never get personal. There’s no room in business to be abusive to people. Half of culture is openness, and when there’s a tendency to gloss over things, that’s when there can be problems.”
The best managers create honesty through mutual respect, says Janie Van Hool, a leadership communication expert. “You don’t have to be nice, but you do have to develop empathy to shape how you deliver messages. This means creating a culture that is mostly nice, but with room for the truth to be told. This requires thought, kindness and consideration,” she says.
“If you care personally for something or someone, you can talk directly – even if it it’s not necessarily being positive,” explains Stephanie Davies, a happiness consultant. “Brutal honesty is acceptable – but context is everything. Remember, if you ask most people, they would probably admit that they want people to give them the truth, rather than what they might want to hear.”
Maybe managers just need to reappraise what ‘nice’ means. “Nice doesn’t mean being squeaky clean all the time, or lying to spare someone’s feelings,” suggests Douglas Dinwiddie, managing director of a web design company. “Being truly ‘nice’ is to be honest. It’s not about treading on eggshells, or being deliberately difficult; it’s about laying everything out on the table, so everyone feels valued and supported.”