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How to Stop Toxic Positivity From Eroding Your Firm's Culture

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What You Need to Know

  • Toxic positivity, which means being uncomfortable with negative emotions, can really hurt your business.
  • Leaders need to listen and communicate around all types of emotions, and to be sure their team members do so, too.
  • Take time to digest negative emotions from team members as a powerful way to diffuse conflicts.

Last week, I wrote about the effects of toxic positivity in an advisory firm’s workforce and how refusing to embrace the full spectrum of emotion can derail a company’s growth and demoralize its team members.

But how does a leader move past toxic positivity and develop a more open and honest company culture?

Let’s define toxic positivity as what happens whenever a leader is uncomfortable with negative emotions of other team members. Instead of listening to a team member’s concerns, a leader asks them to focus on the positives, and ignores the negatives.

While toxic positivity often begins with good intentions, it ends in bitterness and repressed feelings.

The solution? As a leader you have to understand and embrace communication to develop a better culture. This means listening and observing how you communicate. Then, work with your employees to create better communication.

How to Communicate Clearly

The first step in training for good communication, both in yourself and others, is to remove placating from a company’s culture. Placating is what you do when you say things to minimize another person’s negative emotions.

Here’s an example of placating to show bad communication: Imagine you have an associate advisor on your team who’s just finished a financial plan; they did a good job, but you noticed a misspelling or some other small error that bothered you.

You might go to them and start with a compliment, like “You did a good job on the financial plan.”

But in the next phrase, you move immediately to a put down: “Next time, can you please make sure you don’t make any errors?”

Following that, you placate to minimize the hurt feelings by saying something like, “But this is OK for now.”

Many leaders learn to placate because they don’t know how to communicate encouragement in a constructive way. Instead of learning to frame encouragement, they use this demoralizing three-part feedback “compliment-criticize-placate” pattern to double-down on poor communication practices.

Once aware of this communication style, leaders can change to encouragement, which is usually in the form of questions.

For example, a better communication style would be: “What do you think you did well in this financial plan? What do you think you can improve?” Once you get their answers, you often can simply say: “I hear you.”

The Key to an Open Culture

The most effective cultures are open, that is, open to all feelings. In fact, the best leaders welcome these emotions because they know that encouragement and conflict can make everyone better when it’s worked through collaboratively and in an authentic way.

Leaders who default to trite responses by placating and/or articulating direct solutions like “focus on the positive” or “be grateful” typically say those things because they cannot handle negative feelings.

Other times, leaders believe they don’t have time to deal with the negative because they’re busy or already overwhelmed. If an employee walks into your office and says they are frustrated with their job, it’s tough to stop and ask them “tell me more” when you have deadlines hanging over your head.

For example, if an employee tells you they’re frustrated, recognize that it’s not your responsibility to solve their frustration. If someone brings their complaint directly to you, more often than not they are doing so because they trust you. If you hear them out, deeper trust will develop.

So, hear them out.

Your team members needs someone to listen them. By responding with openness and honesty and welcoming their negative emotions, you break down the barriers and diffuse situations that could potentially build up into anger and resentment over time.

If your employee simply needs to vent, your job is 90% done. If they need more guidance, you’re now in a position to help them solve their problem because you fully understand it.

Good communication is often simple. Stop, listen, and try to understand what the person across from you is trying to communicate.

Then, respond, with kindness. Often the only thing you really need do is allow employees to be heard.

By consistently taking these action steps over and over, your firm’s culture will be filled with encouraging words — and encouragement makes a world of difference.