What is Toxic Positivity in the Workplace?

These past years have been challenging for nearly everyone due to the pandemic, supply chain disruptions, global inflation, climate crises, and a host of other issues. We could all use more positivity in times of struggle, right?

But what happens when positivity overloads and becomes inadvertently toxic? In workplace settings, it can be hard to strike the right balance between positive support and toxic positivity. This article will dig deeper into the meaning of toxic positivity and actionable tips to prevent it from seeping into your workplace.

What is Toxic Positivity?

It can be incredibly reassuring when a colleague checks in after your big project to see how things went and remind you how much hard work and effort you put in. It can feel slightly less reassuring—even frustrating, perhaps—when your manager checks in and reminds you, “Just because your project was thrown out by leadership, you should be thankful they looked at it in the first place.”

Toxic positivity is a belief that no matter the odds or circumstances at hand, one should remain optimistic and engage in positive thinking. These individuals prefer superficial displays of positivity while suppressing real or negative emotions.

Having a positive attitude is a wonderful attribute in the workplace, but positivity isn’t always the right response. When it’s misused, it can be damaging to employees’ mental health. Misuse of positivity can be:

  • Creating a false sense of reality with positive words
  • Not speaking up about problems and challenges
  • Avoiding conflict or difficult conversations

Toxic positivity is more widespread in the workplace than most realize. A survey by Leadership IQ found that only 15 percent of employees believed their organizations were transparent about their challenges. Furthermore, only six percent said valid employee feedback was taken seriously at work.

Toxic positivity is seen most often in the workplace through real world scenarios such as:

  • Management carefully selecting positive results to share with the rest of the organization and discouraging employees from asking too many questions about the state of things.
  • Team members withholding ideas or even refraining from constructive criticism due to fear of their ideas not conforming to the “positivity culture.”
  • Leadership ignoring or minimizing issues raised by employees.
  • Employees not trusting each other or leadership.

How Does Toxic Positivity Impact a Company?

As a result of the past few years, many people in the workplace have coped with uncertainty by putting a positive spin on events and staying optimistic in the face of tough economies. However, there’s a difference between optimism and superficial positivity. The latter only acts as a band-aid against stressors. Rattling off platitudes in response to genuine challenges can be more harmful than helpful over time because it doesn’t provide any tangible solution.

According to a KFF/CNN study in 2022, 33 percent of adults reported feeling anxious “always” or “often” in the past year, with an additional third saying they felt anxious “sometimes.” The same survey found that 24 percent of adults said that work was a major stressor for them.

These individuals may be seeking empathy and honesty in the workplace. But if they’re met with toxic positivity statements that invalidate their concerns, they might feel belittled or dismissed. These feelings can lead to disengaged employees and poor employee retention.

However, that’s not the only potential impact on a company. Toxic positivity work cultures can impact the entire organization by contributing to:

  • distrust among employees
  • distrust between management and employees
  • a decline in workplace motivation
  • a rise in work-related stress
  • triangulation (manipulative, indirect communication)

These are all potential issues in the workplace caused by a toxic positivity work culture.

How Can Toxic Positivity Cause Harm?

Toxic positivity teeters on toxicity once it begins invalidating or dismissing someone’s genuine feelings of need. This can manifest in several harmful ways:

  • Guilt—Responding with superficial positivity sends a message that non-positive feelings “aren’t welcome here,” and the individual must feel positive, even during stress or tragedy, or they are doing something wrong.
  • Shame—Similarly, receiving a positive cliche in response to genuine openness communicates that the emotions they’re feeling aren’t acceptable.
  • Avoidance—Toxic positivity is an avoidance mechanism that prevents someone from actively coping or talking through solutions to their problems.
  • Internalization—Without being able to express and have feelings validated, an individual may feel stuck and end up internalizing these difficult emotions and spiraling inward.
  • Gaslighting—Some forms of toxic positivity are considered gaslighting because they create false narratives of reality and cause the recipient to question what they think and feel.

Worst of all, toxic positivity hurts the individuals perpetuating it. A 2018 psychology study found that individuals who routinely avoided acknowledging negative emotions ended up feeling worse in the long run.

Avoid Toxic Positivity at Your Workplace

Workplaces can be both optimistic and healthy. Compassion and empathy can go a long way to encouraging employees when positivity is healthy and constructive.

Psychological safety, a sense of belonging, generating momentum and belief are all benefits of healthy positivity that can bring out the best version of our people in the workplace.

If toxic positivity is spotted in individuals within the workplace, it’s important to address the problem before it has a chance to spread.

If you want to know the right way to address positivity in the workplace, sign up for our FREE workshop: The Power of Positivity! This is part of our Elite Teams workshop series.

Image of a black woman holding string lights in her hands. Title: The Power of Positivity