Professional Expert: Escalation of Unauthentic Friendliness and Excessive Workplace Positivity

**The Dangers of an Overly Nice Workplace Culture: Why Niceness Isn’t Always the Solution**

No one enjoys a toxic workplace. It’s never fun to work unnecessarily long hours or with colleagues who are not supportive. In recent memory, complaints about toxicity were a huge part of the exodus of people out of organizations during the so-called Great Resignation. So, what’s the opposite of a toxic work culture? Beware the overly, falsely nice one, warns Tessa West, NYU psychology professor and author of Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them.

**The Problem with Niceness: Avoidance of Critical Feedback**

“We’ve created a culture where critical feedback is called toxic,” West told Fortune. “I think we conflate niceness with things like empathy, constructive feedback, growth mindset and all these kinds of good positive buzz words we hear, but the way it actually tends to play out at work is an avoidance of criticalness.”

West says that since critical feedback is seen as toxic, managers are often walking on eggshells around the employees. “There’s been this movement in the workplace for people to really prioritize mental health and mental wellbeing. And what that often means is that you can’t say anything negative,” she said. “I’d say this temptation to make people feel better, is actually completely backfiring.”

**How Does Niceness Hurt Employees, Even if not in a Toxic Way?**

A lot of things can make the workplace toxic—including environments that are non-inclusive, abusive, unethical or where leaders aren’t taking responsibility to address employee problems within an organization. But to remedy it, too much niceness isn’t the solution as it doesn’t communicate the truth either, according to West.

“Ironically, this temptation to make people feel good about themselves is resulting in leaders avoiding feedback altogether,” West said, adding that the consequence of that could mean that employees never truly know where they stand in their ability to fulfill their jobs.

What this ultimately does is amplify the level of uncertainty and burnout that people feel at work because they never know how close or far they are from outcomes like being promoted or sacked. West points out that employees also don’t feel a sense of psychological safety—the idea that people can speak up, make mistakes or ask questions without the fear of negative consequences.

So, what can managers do? West suggests communicating with employees with neutral comments first followed by minor or mundane ones so people fall into the habit of being on the receiving end of feedback. She also thinks the feedback should be about specific behaviors of employees rather than about the managers’ impression of it.

“Starting off with fairly neutral content can kind of warm people up to this, if you have a culture of this kind of avoidance of feedback in the workplace,” West said.

**How are employees coping with toxic workplaces?**

Studies have shown that a toxic workplace drove American employees up a wall during the COVID-19 pandemic, culminating in many of them quitting their jobs in search of greener pastures. In 2021, nearly 48 million people quit their jobs and that number rose to over 50 million in 2022, according to government data.

While the pandemic turned the spotlight on toxic workplaces, and the mass resignations were a response (of sorts) to that, we may be far from a reality where such a corporate culture don’t exist. Some job listings still ask for potential employees to have the ability to “handle stress” or “work under pressure,” which could be a red flag regarding the expectations of employees in the workplace.

Some ways of ensuring you aren’t contributing to that culture is by noticing small things, Kathryn Minshew, the CEO of career platform The Muse, wrote for Fortune Commentary in March. That includes checking if you are the first to speak in meetings, having very specific action items for the people who report to you or often tweaking your expectations.

Ultimately, employees want a safe and nurturing space for professional and personal growth. And in the words of the billionaire and veteran Wall Street investor Charlie Munger, the best way to live life is to “avoid toxic people and toxic activities.”

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