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Positivity: Authentic Leadership or Avoiding Reality?

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It seems natural that leaders would be positive people. Being positive gives you vision, motivates and inspires teams, supports organisations to go through difficult patches and creates an energising and rewarding culture. And it’s not just about the leader either: the Cambridge Dictionary defines positivity as also giving cause for hope and confidence (2021).

If being positive can reach beyond yourself, then you might find that professionally it’s your team, your clients or stakeholders who feel the effects. In fact, Cameron states that positive leadership can lead to interpersonal flourishing, virtuous behaviours, energising networks and a state of thriving (2013).

It’s clear there is a power in positivity. Surely every organisation wants these outcomes? So is it time to flip a positivity switch, see the bright side and radiate optimism? Well maybe not, because it turns out, you can actually be too positive…

It’s called toxic positivity, and it’s a term that’s gained some traction in recent years, particularly in relation to social media. Toxic positivity is the idea of responding to experiences, people and situations with an “excessive and ineffective overgeneralisation of a happy, optimistic state” (Quintero & Long, 2019).

Take a colleague who tells you to “look on the bright side” when you explain that you are not feeling your best, or a manager who says “things will soon get better!” when the quarterly figures are at rock bottom – again. You might even find yourself brushing off low moods because “I should be grateful for what I have”.

Unrelenting optimism can impact the way we think and view the world, as well as those around us. It could affect motivation levels and judgement, and cause suppression of our own real emotions (Morin, 2020) as well as trivialising those of others. Committing to one positive view that things will always end happily could set unrealistic expectations, and potentially cause a feeling of stuckness (Primastiwi, 2020).

You might be a leader in your organisation and imagine you pitch a new project to your team, resolutely believing that it is brilliant and will be supported. You might misjudge the situation and not prepare as well as you would if you felt that there was sufficient challenge to achieve your goal (Morin, 2020). When the support for your project isn’t there, it might even be such a surprise that you struggle to find motivation for the next time.

Perhaps even more concerning is that unwavering positivity doesn’t allow space for negative emotions. Instead, difficult emotions are ignored or denied in order to “look on the bright side”. Any pressure on yourself or others to be happy and positive all of the time denies key emotions of human experience (such as pain, sadness and jealously) and leads to self-judgement whilst reducing self-compassion, which is key for maintaining our mental health (Scully, 2020).

In this way, clinical psychologist, Dr. Jaime Zuckerman sees toxic positivity as an avoidance strategy to invalidate internal discomfort. This avoidance or suppression of uncomfortable emotions can lead to a worsening of mental health (Scully, 2020). This research has been developed over decades, with one 1997 study showing that suppressing feelings can cause more psychological stress. So how might we avoid this outcome in a workplace when being ‘professional’ has historically meant remaining objective and level-headed?

There is a place for positivity in leadership. That place is backed by scientific research and (thankfully) it’s not toxic positivity. The field is called positive psychology, and it’s increasingly informing positive leadership to get the best out of organisations.

According Dr Linley from University of Leicester, positive psychology is “the scientific study of optimal human functioning”. Fundamentally, positive psychology recognises that life isn’t sunshine all the time and that sometimes, this isn’t anyone’s fault. Positive psychology differs from simply positive thinking (or toxic positivity) in its accommodation of reality, negative events, emotions and behaviours by appreciating their importance to overall wellbeing (Lewis, 2011).

Key elements of positive psychology look at both individual strength and weaknesses, celebrate successes and work through challenges. Ultimately, positive psychology sees the whole picture and uses it to embrace the opportunities for growth.

In the workplace, it translates into effective positive leadership by considering what is going right, what is being experienced well, and what is inspiring whilst, crucially, looking at this in relation to the things that are not going so well, or what is difficult or challenging for employees (Cameron, 2013).

In her book Daring Greatly, as part of her wider work on vulnerability, Brené Brown also refers to this approach and how leaders can use identified strengths to address specified, related challenges (2012). In fact, Lewis describes how positivity in leadership is strongly associated with authentic leadership (2011): leaders bring positivity to their outlook and behaviours, whilst being fully aware and accepting of their own weaknesses and wider challenges, and are open about them with their teams so that they can move forwards.

So for anyone who leads (and not just those in formal leadership roles), leading with positivity is far from ineffective optimism and denial. Instead, it is an authentic approach to leadership that can help individuals and organisations thrive.

Author: Rachel Thomason, Programme Manager at the Møller Institute.

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