Toxic positivity is harmful to employees and businesses. It is a misguided attempt to reassure employees that can have far-reaching negative impacts. Learning about what toxic positivity is and how to avoid it in the workplace can create a better work environment, which leads to better business performance and results.
When something is toxic, it is harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way. Such is the case with toxic positivity; well-intentioned phrases like “look on the bright side,” “cheer up,” and “it will get better” end up minimizing and invalidating how people really feel. The workplace is seeing more toxic positivity as leaders try to reassure their teams amid the pandemic. Being mindful of what toxic positivity is and how to avoid it creates a culture of trust and acceptance in the workplace that can help employees better process and move through negative emotions, resulting in healthier, happier employees and a healthier business bottom line.
What Is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity actively looks to suppress, minimize, or invalidate real, negative emotions. If you have ever found yourself responding to a colleague with feel-good phrases that essentially ignore his or her emotional experience, that is toxic positivity. Your intention might be good, but the outcome is harmful.
What Are the Impacts of Workplace Toxic Positivity?
Humans experience a wide range of emotions. These emotions are not good or bad—they just are. Suppressing these emotions can impact mental health. Studies demonstrate that “when people think others expect them not to feel negative emotions (i.e., sadness), they experience more negative emotion and reduced well-being.” A 2018 study also found that accepting negative emotions and thoughts without judgment is linked to greater psychological health.
Beyond the psychological impact, toxic positivity in the workplace can result in a lack of trust. When employees are being discouraged from saying what they are really thinking and feeling, they start to withhold a lot of their thoughts and feelings, creating high levels of emotional labor (the process of managing emotions to interact with other people in a certain way while doing a job). Withholding thoughts and feelings and projecting positivity that is not genuine have a significant negative impact on trust.
Humans intuitively know if there is a disconnect between what someone is saying and what someone is actually feeling. While there might not always be clarity on what is going on in an organization, people’s built-in radar will signal that something is off and that it is wise not to trust what the company is saying—or not saying. For example, if you are reassuring your team that everything is fine and things are less than fine, your team will pick up on that and fill in the gaps with their own interpretation of what you are not saying, which only increases uncertainty and damages trust.
Workplace toxic positivity also results in something called triangulation. Triangulation occurs when a leader focuses on getting teams to be positive and is not actually listening to what people are struggling with. The result is that those who are struggling will start talking to everyone else instead of going directly to the person who could help them solve the challenge or issue. Triangulation erodes trust and creates a lot of artificiality in how employees show up. In the absence of the ability to have healthy conflict and honest conversations, business performance and results will suffer.
How Do You Avoid Toxic Positivity in the Workplace?
Allow people to feel what they are feeling.
If people are experiencing negative emotions—if they are sad, angry, or frustrated or feeling despair—the most effective and positive thing you can do is allow them to be exactly where they are and feel what they feel. Meeting them with empathy and acceptance creates a very positive experience that fosters a real sense of connection.
Actively listening and allowing employees to be heard is another way to minimize toxic positivity in the workplace. Active listening involves genuinely listening to employees’ objective experience of the world and honoring their truth.
There are two approaches to active listening. The first approach is to ask employees to tell you more about their challenges. For example, saying something like “it must be hard, so tell me more about it” shows you care and encourages the employees to express their feelings openly. Another approach is to paraphrase what you hear them say and what you hear they feel—for example, “What I hear you saying is that you are dealing with a lot of stress at work. Is that right? This call for understanding validates their emotions and opens up a dialogue. Don’t jump into developing solutions too quickly; in fact, you’ll want to find out if they’re interested in your help with problem-solving or if they just want you to listen. Sometimes they want to feel heard first, and then they’ll decide whether they are open-minded to beginning to develop solutions.
Avoid the word “should.”
Telling employees they should be grateful they have a job or they should think positively or they should look at the silver lining are all toxic phrases to be avoided. “Shoulds,” “musts,” and “have tos” often discount and delegitimize authentic human experiences when they’re used as a response to negative emotions.
In the pandemic environment, well-meaning leaders are trying to provide reassurance to their employees. This reassurance can often unintentionally skew toward toxic positivity. The key to avoiding toxic positivity here is to be honest and transparent. Reassurance that is truthful and backed up by data will come across as genuine because it is. As a leader, if you don’t have insight into what will happen and don’t have data to back up any reassurance, then you’ll want to develop a plan and communicate it to employees to avoid toxic positivity and provide some level of information. For example, communicating “In the event the company has to implement a workforce reduction, everyone will get at least 4 weeks’ notice” gives employees some amount of information and certainty that comes from a place of truth.
Employees are human, and humans have emotions. Meeting employees where they are emotionally with empathy and concern creates a deep sense of connection that is healthier for the employees and the organization. Healthy, happy employees are engaged and productive, and that has a true bottom-line impact.
Dr. Laura Gallaher has worked in the field of professional and personal development since 2005. Laura is an organizational psychologist, speaker, facilitator, and executive coach. She is the founder and CEO of Gallaher Edge, which she started in 2013 and rebranded in 2018.