The corporate world encourages a culture of positivity in the workplace. Encouraging positivity is generally a good thing, especially during workplace change, which sometimes brings a whole set of unique challenges and concerns to you and your workforce.
The danger is when you insist everyone put their concerns away. No matter how legitimate their questions may be, you expect them to look on the bright side, turn their frowns upside down, and keep a sunny disposition regardless of how they’re feeling inside about the change.
This is called false positivity, and it’s actually quite toxic to the workplace, especially when a well-intentioned team member brings forward a completely valid concern, only to be discouraged and brushed off as a “negative thinker”.
False positivity can lead to employee disengagement and poor morale, two things that can spell disaster for your organizational change strategy.
False Positivity – the Morale Killer
As an effective leader, you often have to balance your organization’s goals with your team’s needs. Sometimes this means putting yourself in your employees’ shoes to test your own thoughts and feelings about situations surrounding change.
If you were told to “stop being negative” when you tried to ask a tough question, or had a manager who insists you paint a smile on your face when you have concerns about organizational change, how would you feel? You might think you’re being ignored, unappreciated, or stigmatized for the simple act of asking a question and forced to “over-cope” by putting on a happy face.
In a culture of false positivity, your team may appear cheerful on the outside but actually be miserable and fearful within*. During change, you need these people on your side and supportive of what can be a difficult process.
You’ve probably heard about the importance of embracing mistakes in business. It’s the same with negativity. That’s not to suggest you wallow in it – that could lead to all sorts of other problems!
But by embracing negativity, you’re making it real. By making it real, you can address any issues and find a way to turn them around.
One important factor is not to misconstrue negative feedback, concerns, or criticism from your team as evidence of bad attitudes. On the contrary, when they give you negative feedback it shows they’re engaged. More importantly, it shows they care. If you shrug off their feedback as simple negativity, you appear to be making your team’s concerns invalid. That’s not a healthy approach at all.
Positive psychology is important and necessary in order to develop a change strategy, especially when it comes to your workforce**. More often than not, you’ll find that people aren’t always looking for a solution when they have a problem, but rather just want to be heard. They understand that you can’t solve every issue that comes up. But they do want to know that you care. By care, I don’t mean in a “hand holding” type of way, but in a manner that shows you are thinking things through from their point of view.
In the end, by demonstrating a willingness to listen to negativity, you’ll actually be taking a positive approach, which will lead to a more productive change environment.
Positive Thinking vs. Positive Approach
Positive thinking is important in life. It often gets us through our daily challenges and provides an antidote to negative feelings. However, positive thinking is context specific. When it comes to concerns in the workplace, positive thinking alone can actually be detrimental and contribute to creating false positivity.
It’s like the ostrich that has its head in the sand, believing that by doing so the lion that’s been stalking it won’t turn it into lunch. It can hide its head, pretend the lion isn’t there, and think positively all it wants: those strategies won’t make the lion turn away.
It’s the same in the workplace. Thinking positively won’t make questions and concerns go away. When you take a positive approach, however, you’re actually stepping up and taking action.
In the case of the ostrich, the most positive approach would be either to run or peck at the lion with its big, sharp beak. It’s taking a positive approach and letting go of the outcome, while still hoping to live and fight another day.
Chances are no one’s going to eat you during workplace change, but by taking a positive approach rather than just thinking positively, you’ll be helping your whole team manage better through the process.
Remember the William Bridges Transition Model: I can do the Tarzan swing one-way across the curve from the ending to the new beginning, but I still have to go back and get through the neutral zone – which for me is generally the negative parts! Change is not linear. Prepare yourself for this because even if the change is progressing smoothly overall, negative things will invariably pop up.
5 Tips to Avoiding False Positivity
It’s really all about balancing dualities: yin and yang, up and down, left and right, and, of course, positive and negative. It might be a fine balancing act but as a leader, you can do it!
Here are 5 tips that can help:
1. Avoid positive spin
Putting a positive spin on things is not taking a positive approach. Rather, you’re denying that negativity can exist and you possibly close down communication with your team. Remember to keep communication open and as honest as you can be as a leader without misleading anyone. Sometimes you have to stay in the negative before you get out of it. In a meeting, you can have a timed discussion of the negative aspects to get them on the table, and then move into positive action, knowing that the negative won’t go away at this point.
2. Ground yourself in facts while balancing the emotional aspect
If you find yourself or your team slipping into a negative mindset, ask yourself, “What evidence is there to support this?” Chances are the facts don’t support the level of negative experience.
3. Be prepared to be unprepared
The longer, the more complex the change, the less you will know what the future holds. As a leader, you should be able to ask tough questions of the right people to get the answers you need. You can convey those answers to your team, relieving their fears (hopefully!). But sometimes, there are no answers and we just need to prepare for the unknown. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”
4. Don’t label
If people are skeptical about the change, be supportive without labelling them as “being negative”. Oftentimes, they just need to get their questions answered to engage in the change. Putting a label on people is no way to gain their support and trust, and can shut down other team members. (I’m not referring to the constant complainers here!)
5. Focus on daily interactions
While the budgets, frameworks and change management plans are important, it’s your day-to-day interactions with others that will make or break the success of your change initiative. Understand that your team is human. They’re not automatons lacking the capability of fear and doubt. Treating each person like an individual will go a long way to making the change process go a lot smoother.
Believe it or not, focusing on the negative aspects of change is actually taking a positive approach. You can address that negativity and avoid creating a culture of false positivity at the same time.
This will make your change initiatives successful!
*David, Susan (2016). Emotional Agility, Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery
** M.& Heaphy, E. (2004). The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams. American Behavioral Scientist; Froman, Larry (2009), Positive Psychology in the Workplace