Have you ever felt frustrated with someone’s constant positivity?
Here’s a scenario:
Michael works for a boss that seemingly refuses to acknowledge how bad their work environment has become. He has tried to discuss it with his boss but feels dismissed. She seems to ignore the problems and spins everything into a positive, “This is such a great growth opportunity! Let’s focus on what we’re learning.” or “Hey. Cheer up! At least we have jobs, right?” or “Look on the bright side. Everyone is working hard and that means they’re committed. Thank you for all you do.”
Michael feels his boss is ignoring reality. It’s nice that she thanks him, but it feels hollow, and his concerns trivialized. Her optimism doesn’t help, and his frustration is building.
If you have felt frustrated with someone’s positive attitude, you are not alone. Positive attitudes and optimism, in excess, can be detrimental to relationships and performance. Ever heard the quip “too much of a good thing can do you harm”. It applies here too.
Michael’s boss has likely fallen victim to false or toxic positivity which is to “dismiss negative emotions and respond to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy.”
We all do this at some point. We want to soothe another person’s distress, we are uncomfortable with negative emotions ourselves, or we just don’t want to hear it. So, we brush the critical or negative comments away, ignore them, or minimize them with an optimistic spin.
Some leaders go further and just refuse to hear anything negative. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, might be one of the most well-known. There is a name plate outside her personal conference room that says, “Only good news".
Here’s the problem, when we ignore aspects of work that are painful, difficult, sad, or disappointing we are also ignoring a normal human experience. The tacit implication is that the person with the negative experience or emotion is somehow wrong in how they feel.
When leaders show false positivity, it undermines the team’s performance. Think about it, how motivated are you do to great work when you feel like your boss is dismissing your concerns?
It is no surprise then that the opposite is true. Inc.com reported on a survey conducted by Salesforce Research that found “…when employees feel heard, they were 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform to the best of their abilities.”
While Michael’s boss, in the scenario above, likely thought she was being encouraging to the team, she was derailing their performance.
What to do Instead
I can hear it already, “So now what? Do I just let my friends or my team gripe to no end and blather on about how crappy everything is?”
One extreme is to respond with false positivity and that, we have already addressed, is unproductive. The next worst thing to do is swing to the other extreme and open the flood gates of complaining. Strike a balance. Here is what to do instead.
Ask Questions and Listen
When a direct report, colleague, friend, or loved one comes to you with a problem, begin by asking questions and just listen. You don’t have to apologize, like “I’m so sorry this happened”, because you likely did nothing to contribute to the situation. Rather just ask “What has that been like for you?” and just listen.
A helpful technique is to validate and verify to demonstrate you’re listening. It is to paraphrase what you heard back. This isn’t to agree, rather demonstrate you’ve listened. Sometimes, it is all you need to do.
Like in Michael’s case, from the scenario at the start of the article. He just wanted his boss to acknowledge the situation. He knew she couldn’t change much of it, but at least she could confirm that it was hard.
Resist Trying to Solve
Leaders (and friends and loved ones) are often fixers and are motivated to help make the problem go away. Resist trying to solve the problem or provide suggestions. Avoid saying things like “Here’s what you should do.” Or “Here’s what I do…” Often, the solutions you describe won’t fit the person’s situation.
You might offer your own experience like “I’ve been in a similar situation; would you like to hear about that?” But give the person the option to say no. Again, they may not want to know your situation or a suggested solution. Rather, they just need someone to hear them out.
Here is why that is helpful. Zawn Villines writes in Medical News Today, “Simply vocalizing emotions may make [those emotions] feel less powerful, helping a person feel less “trapped” by them.”
Sometimes, just vocalizing our concerns and feeling listened to is all we need.
Facilitate New Ideas
It's possible that if you have asked questions, listened, and resisted trying to solve the person’s problem, then they might be ready to generate new ideas…their new ideas, not yours. But you play an important role now in facilitating that.
You will ask more questions, but these shift into inquiring if the person is ready to act:
What would be helpful to you?
What options do you have?
What do you want to do now?
What is the most realistic next step that would be helpful to you?
The goal here is to help shift the person into new thinking but this is only possible if they have been able to process the emotions they have been feeling. Again, in many cases, action isn’t needed. The person just needed to feel heard.
Who would have thought that being positive could be detrimental to our work or to our life? It can, in excess, and especially when the reality of a situation is being ignored.
The goal here is not to swing between extremes, to stop being positive and now be negative. Rather, to strike a balanced approach to listening to the tough stuff (without trying to solve) and facilitating new ideas. This is the path to a supportive and productive environment.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training, coaching, and professional development resources.