Toxic positivity in teams

Toxic positivity in teams

Angela van Dorssen is an internationally certified coach who has been qualified in neuro-transformational therapy since 2020. She tells us about her work.

End of the week. Friday morning. I’m facilitating a team in the financial industry. We’re dealing with psychological safety, at their request. It’s not an easy subject. A lot of teams avoid talking about it, but, if you follow the news, you know it’s extremely relevant. In order to create a sense of security and to reduce any awkwardness, everyone had filled in an online questionnaire about how psychologically safe he or she feels in the team. The results give an anonymous impression of the current situation. An open dialogue ensues.

Don’t be so negative

And then the question that has been hanging in the air since the team saw the broad spread of the results: “Who only gave it a three?” Every score, high or low, is worthy of examination from my point of view, but we are programmed to just look at the low numbers. After a short silence, someone has the courage to speak out. They are emotional. The unease in the room reaches its climax.

We still believe that feelings do not belong in the workplace, apparently. Emotion is ‘unprofessional’ and should be kept to yourself, if you have it at all. And once the emotion’s out there, we want to get everything back to being harmonious and positive again as quickly as possible. We don’t like it, we don’t know what to do with it and it causes a great deal of unease and awkwardness. Focussing on the positive is a lot easier.

And the reaction came: “You mustn’t look at it like that. You can also look at what’s going well, can’t you?” The person concerned dried their eyes, nodded in accord and said nothing more…

Toxic positivity

The psychotherapist Whitney Goodman (2022) describes the impact of toxic positivity: “Positivity can be extremely toxic and bad for your mental health if it leads to you repressing negative feelings.”

She does not say that you always have to give your emotions free rein and that you have to express them everywhere, but she does bring a refreshing perspective to the long-term effects on our health of repressing them. When listening to someone, we might think that we are supporting and helping them by playing down what they are feeling, but what we are implicitly saying is: “Don’t talk about what you are experiencing”. They then feel entirely unsupported and unacknowledged.

Holding safe space

It’s actually simple to break the pattern if you are just courageous enough to feel that awkwardness. This what you can do:

· Focus your attention on the other. Don’t start talking about what you have experienced.

· Recognise the emotions and the impact on the other.

· Ask open questions and listen to the answers.

· Ask about needs rather than just wanting to resolve the issue: “What do you need?

Team coaching