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When being positive is unhelpful

Updated: Oct 20

As the furlough scheme comes to an end, many UK companies are implementing job cuts and restructures. Even for those fortunate enough to remain in employment, the future is still uncertain. Many leaders are telling us that right now keeping their teams - and themselves - motivated is their biggest concern:

“It’s hard work staying positive”
“When I’m feeling down, I still need to buoy up the team”
“It’s as if people in my team can’t see the bigger picture – or don’t want to”
“It’s hard to tell them things they don’t want to hear”
“I feel caught in the middle; I know the messages coming down from the top are overly positive – I don’t know how honest I should be with my team”

Our last blog described the Stockdale Paradox – an acceptance of the current reality and at the same time an unwavering faith, in the end, the positive outcome – but these comments show what a difficult balancing act it is.


Staying positive is our go-to response in a crisis and it is a good short-term coping mechanism. But being relentlessly upbeat when the facts and data are telling us we will be living with the virus for some time denies the reality of it. The unintended consequence for organisations is a culture of ‘toxic positivity’ where a spin is put on everything and negative feelings are suppressed or invalidated, leaving people feeling alienated and isolated.


It may sound counterintuitive but being upfront about the challenges ahead can actually help to build resilience in the team. A recent study by the ADP Research Institute provides a compelling argument as to why “sugar-coating reality is not good for anyone.” The global study found that whilst 97% of workers had experienced at least one COVID-related change in the workplace (such as more or fewer work hours, a shift to virtual working, layoffs and furloughs), those who experienced five or more changes were over 13 times more likely to describe themselves as Highly Resilient.


So, as a leader, how do you strike the right balance in what you say and do? Critical for motivating and inspiring others in a crisis is the behaviour of building confidence. The foundation level for this behaviour is to be self-assured, decisive and, crucially, acknowledge the reality of the obstacles and difficulties facing the team. Building on this, leaders can lift it to a higher level by showing their belief and optimism in the team’s future success, giving specific examples of the strengths and capabilities that will help the team prevail and making statements of hope. However, leaders who skip straight to the ‘yes we can’ messages without talking about the harsh realities will come across as insincere and overly optimistic, and risk losing the trust of their team.


For many, communicating positive messages comes easily but it’s more of a struggle to give the messages that people might not want to hear. Here are four things that can help:


  1. Describe what’s happening using objective, neutral language, facts and evidence

  2. Give space for people to voice their fears - and acknowledge your own

  3. Focus on what’s known and controllable and put short term, achievable goals in place

  4. Like the virus, emotions are highly infectious, so ensure you are feeling resilient before sharing difficult news with the team.


If you’d like to hear more about how Lift is helping leaders keep their teams motivated through the crisis, do get in touch.


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