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- How to Avoid Toxic Positivity in Your Studio
How to Avoid Toxic Positivity in Your Studio
Read Time: 6 Minutes
Toxic positivity. You’re familiar with the original definition: Managers quashing negative/divergent views by constantly espousing things like “positive attitudes” and “hustle” culture and making it seem like you weren’t super enthusiastic every day at work; you were part of the problem.
In the gaming world, we’ve seen it go a step further. Kindness has become such a cultural cornerstone that it’s becoming the predominant focus within and across teams. Nobody wants to say something negative. Nobody wants to point out the elephant in the room. Nobody wants to give challenging feedback about a team member who hasn’t been pulling their weight for the last six months. We’ve come to value peace, harmony, and kindness over any other value - to the detriment of our teams.
This simply doesn’t work long-term. When negativity and pain are covered up with kindness and positivity at every turn, the positivity eventually generates cynicism and frustration, becoming toxic. The result is teams that can’t communicate and organizations where nobody wants to say anything uncomfortable.
In creative development, we’re constantly chewing through uncertainty and discomfort. To refuse to acknowledge that is to refuse to recognize reality. Teams that don’t acknowledge reality fail.
Today, we’ve got some tips for you and critical areas to focus on to avoid having the lovely vision of kinder studios become something toxic that kills your game.
Give Great Feedback Often
Most teams don’t have a forum for giving feedback, and typically, when they do give each other feedback, it’s structured poorly or happens only once the person is failing so badly that there’s no redemption. I’ve seen organizations where everyone is terrified to give feedback at all. If we’re giving feedback, it means someone is screwing up. If things are good, why would I need to say anything at all?
There’s a reason why people espouse communication as one of the most important things in a relationship. We all inherently understand that deeper relationships mean effectively working through conflict. We need tools to be able to do that. Our longer-term relationships are defined by our ability to work through that conflict effectively. Organizations that sidestep this reality, create massive waste as everyone is working around the problems they have with their colleagues.
Teams must create a space where feedback happens regularly and prioritize that time. There’s also a great approach called the “impact feedback model” we can use.
Put a meeting on the calendar at regular intervals to have your team go round-robin with feedback. Each person on the team takes a turn in the hot seat. They are not allowed to speak in the hot seat (only to take notes or say thank you). Each person spends 2-3 minutes giving that person feedback (positive & constructive).
This will be very awkward at first. Give your team space to push through the awkwardness. This is a muscle that needs to be developed. Over time, you will be shocked at how much trust and openness are built into your team after a couple of sessions.
Try the Impact Feedback Model. Quite simply, it’s feedback you can give to anyone broken down into three pieces.
Situation - “Hey Tom, I noticed you weren’t in any of our standups this week.”
Behavior - “You didn’t let anyone know you wouldn’t be there or why.”
Impact - “I haven’t been able to ask you questions or get feedback when needed. It blocked me on all my work this week”. I’ve felt the team’s needs aren’t important to you.”
This is still hard feedback to give, but it helps “de-personalize” it by working through the model, starting with facts and ending with how it’s affected you & others.
Talk about what’s not working regularly.
Don’t just sit around and complain; create space where the team can talk about what’s not working and fix it.
Make talking about tough things okay. You need a place where the team can raise issues and get them fixed. Not having facilities for this should be a gigantic red flag. Your ability to adapt during development will be your primary edge in building great games and staying ahead of your competitors. If you’re not iterating on your approach regularly, you’re not adapting. Period. And if you’re not adjusting, you’re encouraging people to keep problems to themselves. We’ve seen this spiral kill games and companies.
One of our biggest frustrations when working with game studios is retrospectives that lead to no tangible action or follow-up. Not just a waste of time but a clear signal to everyone that improvement is NOT a priority!
Take a look at your meeting update format. Is everyone showing up to say they’re “green” or “on track”? Not valuable. I want to know what the problems are. Try glossing over the “green people” and focusing on how to get the “red people” help ASAP. Not only are you encouraging people to raise visibility when they have problems, but you’re signaling to the team about what’s most important in the meeting: Solving problems.
Regularly take time to pivot based on the things you’ve learned in the last couple of weeks. Call it a retrospective or not, but make sure there is time for the team to discuss what isn’t working amongst each other and develop changes/solutions. Most importantly, give them time and space to make the changes.
Drive the Right Behaviors
The world has changed a lot in the last couple of years. We’re more focused on caring for mental health, being compassionate toward marginalized groups, and ensuring we’re being as fair as possible with teams and hiring. Kindness is a good thing.
Let’s be clear, though: Kindness at the expense of results is a failure. Anyone can “be nice” without consequence. The real challenge for us as leaders is to be kind & compassionate while continuing to produce results, hold people accountable, and encourage healthy conflict.
So much of this rests on us as leaders and managers. If we reward people for being friendly over driving results or speaking the truth, that’s what they will do. We need to actively celebrate team members who call out risk and push others around them to be/do better.
Actively reward and celebrate when people call out hard things. Don’t label it as “whining” or “negativity” (unless it is, and you’ll know). Train people to follow up with a potential solution when they have a concern.
As opposed to celebrating people just for being friendly, celebrate those who build trusting relationships through kindness and healthy challenge.
Celebration can look like public recognition (I wanted to send out this Email about something I saw Sally do this week that was great), physical reward (promotions, raises, leadership roles, etc), and personal recognition from you.
Focus on feedback, talking about the hard things, and behavioral incentives to get your teams away from toxic positivity and toward a healthy culture (that includes kindness). I can’t emphasize enough that kindness as an imperative will damage your organization. When people value maintaining relationships and not hurting feelings OVER results - it leads to cynicism and frustration. Discussing the problematic & frustrating things is the first step to overcoming them. Overcoming challenges as a team will deepen intimacy and relationships faster than anything else. Period.
Check out “Succeeding in Game Production.”
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