A friend recently introduced me to the idea of “toxic positivity”, which can be summarized as the “everything is awesome!” approach to life. I can’t speak to other industries, but I see this attitude all too often in tech. While I believe we should encourage some level of positive thinking, when we don’t allow ourselves the space for our pain, for our grief, we tip the balance into toxicity.

It’s not me, it’s you

If you work in tech, you have probably run into one of the following mantras at some point:

  • Celebrate your failures
  • Don’t come to me with problems, come to me solutions
  • Happiness is a choice

When something bad happens, it’s actually good! When you have a problem, it’s not worth talking to me about it unless you know how to fix it. You can be happy too - just be happy.

There are plenty more, but it all boils down to the idea that if you are not satisfied with a situation, you have the power to fix it. In the book “America the Anxious” by Ruth Whippman, she summarizes the problem with this mentality beautifully:

But it doesn’t take long to realize that the flip side of this logic is that, if I am not happy, then it is All My Own Fault

Let’s be honest here - failure sucks and I do not want to dwell on it, much less celebrate it. Sometimes I have a problem, I have no idea what to do, and I cannot face it alone. Sometimes I am sad, angry, disgusted, scared, and happiness won’t help me right now, because I need to process this feeling.

In my career, especially in the last year, I cannot stress enough how lucky I am to have worked in environments (some more equipped than others) where I have been given the space to have these feelings, to step away, to reset. While this is a practice I want to encourage, it still implies that the underlying problem is within the individual. People may be given the time to get away, but what happens when the problem is rooted in the way we work?

Everything is awesome!

I think retros are the most important thing you can do as team. Taking the time to reflect on the work you just completed, to celebrate the successes, to re-examine the challenges, is necessary for the continual improvement of the team. Too often, however, I’ve seen retro devolve into just being a “good vibes sesh”, a full hour of teammates just giving each other kudos. Recognizing and celebrating each other is important part of bonding the team, but it can’t be the only point of the discussion.

If retro doesn’t allow people to recognize the things that are not working, when will the team ever get the chance to fix it? Even worse, people may be actively discouraged from bringing up anything that’s going wrong because no one wants to be the person that “kills the vibes.” I have attended retros for sprints that completely burned me out, just seething in silence as the team celebrated all the “success.” I don’t care if the release went out on time, should we really be patting ourselves on the back for the all nighter we just pulled to make it so? Shouldn’t we instead be examining the circumstances that led to this situation in the first place? But I hesitated to speak up because I didn’t want to rain on the parade.

Spinning things as a positive does not magically make things positive. Instead, it isolates each individual who is struggling with the status quo, who actually may not be alone in their thinking! It gaslights them into thinking that maybe the process is fine and that they are problem. After all, no one has said anything, so it must be fine, right? And so what happens? They leave.

Bringing an attitude of balance

I am by no means encouraging complain-a-thons. The key here is balance. Here are a few ways you could help bring that balance to your team:

  • During retros, time-box each part so that there is space to discuss both the successes and the challenges
  • Be the person that brings up challenges. Try to do so calmly, without attacking, and using neutral words to keep things constructive. You are probably not the only person that is feeling that way.
  • If you’re a leader, recognize when things are going great and when things are not going well. And provide the space for the team to try things to remedy the problem. Yes, it might slow things down, but I can promise you that things will come to a screeching halt when your team decides to leave instead.

We have to recognize that in order to improve, we have to come to terms that the things we feel can’t just be ignored, that the things that aren’t going well need to be addressed. Recognizing that things can be improved doesn’t mean that everything is currently broken. But how will things get better if we don’t see them for how they truly are?