There has been a lot of focus in the past few years about the importance of positive thinking.
Explained in its simplest terms, having a positive mindset means being able to see the bright side of things.
For instance, instead of saying and believing a statement such as:
“My team never does what I ask them to do. No one respects me. I’m no good in my new leadership role”, someone with a more positive mindset might think about the exact same situation with these thoughts:
“I’m having a difficult time getting my team to do what I’m asking of them at the moment. I’m still working on growing into my new leadership role. But I’m capable and competent and will be able to learn what I need to be effective in this new role.”
Positive thinking has been linked to many health benefits, such as decreased stress, lower rates of depression and even better cardiovascular health. It’s an important life skill.
But today, I want to look at what happens when positive thinking goes wrong.
Let me share a story to make this all a bit more concrete.
I once consulted to a team that was undergoing significant changes as the manager left the company. This brought with it significant changes in vision. At the same time, the team was also experiencing a high rate of employee turnover. With all of the change going on, people were feeling very uneasy.
In an attempt to reassure the employees, leadership focused on sharing messages that were grounded in positive thinking. Common messages that could be heard in meetings included comments such as “We’ve managed through other tough changes, we’ll get through this one”, “We’ll work together to adapt”, “We can get through this as a team”, etc.
However, the challenge was that the employees didn’t truly believe these messages.
In fact, not everyone in leadership who said these messages truly believed them. This disconnect could be felt by the employees. Rather than reassure them, it exacerbated their fear.
Instead of positive thinking, what these employees needed was for someone to address the fear that many of them were experiencing.
It was only once the team started to have these uncomfortable conversations that the employees were able to slowly shift to the positive thinking that the leaders had been trying to encourage.
They needed their concerns addressed, rather than swept under the rug with positive mindset promises that didn’t ring true to their current experience of the situation.
People need to feel heard before they can shift to a positive mindset about a difficult situation.
We often rush too quickly to get to the positive mindset. But we sometimes need to slow down and leave space for people to process their feelings about difficult situations first.
I’m not saying that positive mindset is a bad thing. It’s equally unhealthy to stay stuck ruminating over negative emotions.
However, managing difficult situations and the emotions that inevitably arise is much more complex than simply thinking positively about the situation.
My challenge to you today is to start noticing when you use toxic positivity to shut down uncomfortable conversations. This would be when someone shares a difficult experience with you and you respond in a way that encourages them to look on the bright side of things, without ever having validated their emotions about the experience. These become very patterned ways of interacting with others, and I still catch myself automatically using toxic positivity at times, even though I am very aware of this phenomenon.
If you’re wondering if your use of positive messages is inadvertently leaving your team feeling unheard and disengaged, give me a call and we’ll chat.
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