Why toxic positivity can be detrimental to workplace culture

Maintaining patience and optimism throughout difficult situations is an important part of any professional’s mindset – indeed, any human being’s mindset. However, this can become problematic when a rigid commitment to remaining positive means dismissing any genuine negative emotions. This phenomenon has been dubbed toxic positivity, and bringing it into your workplace culture can be damaging to your staff’s morale.

In this issue of The Pulse, we explore how toxic positivity manifests in a workplace setting, as well as its potential consequences.

What’s the difference between toxic positivity and regular positivity?

Being hopeful and optimistic are good for your overall health. But how much is too much?

Positivity should never come at the expense of acknowledging, processing, and healing from difficult situations and emotions – or acknowledging those in others. It’s okay to be disappointed, angry, or sad when a boundary has been crossed, for example. Ignoring or invalidating these feelings can have ramifications on mental and physical health, as well as impacting one’s home, work, and social life.

Regular positivity leaves room for all emotions and growth, but toxic positivity minimizes hurt or sadness, and encourages everyone in a workplace to behave happily all the time – regardless of the circumstances.

What does toxic positivity look like?

Chances are, you’ve been on the receiving end of toxic positivity rhetoric before. Think of such helpful phrases as “just look on the bright side” or “find a silver lining” as a response to genuinely upsetting situations, like a missed sales target or a personal injury. Sometimes cheering up right away is for others’ benefit, not yours.

Verywell Mind puts it best when it says: “toxic positivity denies people the authentic support that they need to cope with what they are facing”.

This is a dangerous management style.

You can have the best team of employees in the entire world, and still, they will face difficulties. That is a part of the human experience. When you or a member of your team is struggling, rather than being told to grin and bear it, you should be able to trust that you’ve got a strong support system behind you. That is a big part of creating a workplace environment that people can believe in.

If you think you might manage from a place of toxic positivity, here are some of the consequences you are risking:

  • A culture of shame and guilt among your staff.
  • A lack of authentic human emotions and connections in your team, leading to poor teamwork and less loyalty.
  • A lack of employee growth.
  • A lack of trust between you and your employees.
  • An increase in employee burnout.

Set a good example.

As a leader, you can model the kind of workplace emotional honesty that is appropriate at the office. These include:

  • Do not deny your negative emotions, but manage them responsibly.
  • Be realistic about how you feel and what you can take on.
  • Accept that feelings aren’t always straightforward and can often be conflicting.
  • Demonstrate active listening and showing support to your employees.

When an employee is going through a difficult situation, rather than focus on “good vibes”, there are several helpful ways you can show support:

  • Listen when your employees need to vent.
  • Support them through difficult periods and offer to help when appropriate.
  • Express honest empathy.
  • Do not be overly critical of honest failures.
  • Let them know their feelings are valid.

In conclusion…

Optimism is a virtue, to a point. When trying to build a positive workplace culture, avoid toxic positivity, and keep its subtle but damaging signs on your radar.