When I was in college I went to a concert thrown by a commune that lived in the middle of a desert. While the band was playing, I observed five children, probably between three and seven years old, dancing on a tin roof about 20 feet off the ground. And by dancing, I mean jumping around like they were in a bouncy house, with no guardrails and no adult supervision.
Horrified, I found one of the adult residents and pointed out that the situation was dangerous. Rather than do something about it, however, he stared at me with narrowed eyes and said, rather menacingly, “Now if one of them falls, it will be YOUR fault, because you’re giving off negative vibes.”
That guy was so stoned he probably had no more than 37 brain cells operating at full capacity, but I’ve met (and endured) plenty of corporate leaders, motivational speakers, and clueless coworkers espouse essentially the same attitude: that if you don’t constantly maintain a positive attitude at work, it’s your fault when things go south.
This “let’s all be positive no matter what” attitude is depressingly common throughout the business world.
For example, here’s how a typical How-To Guide defines the correct tone for a corporate vision statement: “Positive words generate positive energy. When you read a positive statement you are filled with positive energy. Your vision declaration should include positive words in order to radiate positive energy so that when people read it or hear it they feel connected.”
This “let’s all be positive” notion even gets into employee handbooks. This from T-Mobile:“Employees are expected to maintain a positive work environment by communicating in a manner that is conducive to effective working relationships with internal and external customers, clients, co-workers, and management.”
Just as the druggie’s flawed reasoning at the conference could have gotten those kids injured, the relentless pursuit of positivity in corporate environments can have negative consequences, specifically “more stress, emotional exhaustion, poorer physical health, and decreased job satisfaction.” The problem, according to Psychology Today is that
“Taken to an extreme, positivity becomes toxic and deprives us of the motivation to make healthy changes that the awareness of a negative, uncomfortable reality would otherwise stimulate us to make. For example, a person with toxic positivity might return repeatedly to an abusive relationship ‘because I want to just focus on his positive aspects, and hold hope that he will change!’ Or they might run up huge credit card bills on frivolous things because they’re ‘staying positive’ about future earnings.”
While the above quote deals with personal relationships, it’s equally true of corporate relationships. Employees forbidden to think anything other that positive thoughts are likely, for instance, to tolerate abusive customers rather than cutting them loose. Similarly, an entrepreneur might put their startup into massive debt because their over-confidence leads them to ignore evidence that there’s no market demand.
Turn toxic positive thinking using this simple formula:
A. See things as they are.
B. See how things could be better.
C. Decide how to get from A to B.
Toxic positivity skips the first step and therefore can never get to the third step. Instead, toxic positivity gets bogged down in the illusion that B is already real.