What Is Toxic Positivity and How to Avoid It at Work

What Is Toxic Positivity and How to Avoid It at Work

If you had a difficult day at work, you have encountered toxic positivity and were advised “you’re bringing the mood down” or “positive vibes only.” When you actively suppress, downplay, or invalidate negative emotions, you are exhibiting toxic positivity

Toxic positivity can be especially damaging at work. People may feel unimportant, ignored, and invalidated as a result. A toxic positivity perpetrator usually has the best of intentions while helping or encouraging someone who is suffering. However, toxic positivity ignores a person’s underlying, genuine emotions.

Toxic positivity ignores negative emotions and places happiness above all else. Learning to accept life’s bittersweet realities is necessary for a workplace with this mindset to prosper. Avoiding negative emotions can seriously impair a person’s physical and mental well-being.

A 2018 study found that people who routinely suppressed their negative emotions typically feel much worse than those who let emotions flow.

It is often prohibited to express negative feelings at work. Everyone is, therefore, usually putting on their best behavioral façade.

So, what will happen if leaders force their positive perspective on others? Because employees will feel uncomfortable discussing issues that require resolution, things will get unpleasant over time.

As such, it becomes vital for leaders and everyone else in the workplace to know the signs of toxic positivity so they can distinguish between it and genuine optimism and take appropriate measures to avoid it at work. We will be addressing all of these topics in this post.

The Benefits of Optimism vs. Toxic Positivity—

What Is Toxic Positivity and How to Avoid It at Work 1
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Toxic positivity is an avoidance mechanism that uses dismissive positive statements rather than empathy or more advanced coaching and communication when facing conflict.

Optimism is being hopeful about the future, even when confronted with difficult situations, conflict, and negative feelings.

Even though keeping a positive outlook and showing gratitude can be therapeutic, going too far can be damaging. Toxic positivity is the idea that one should have an unwaveringly optimistic outlook despite the challenging situations they are currently going through.

There is a fine line between having optimism and overdoing it to the point that it becomes toxic.

It can be detrimental in several ways to believe that it is always preferable to think positively, irrespective of the situation. Advising a colleague, who is also a friend, to remain optimistic after their parent died or after they found they had a terminal illness is more than just hurtful.

It ignores and negates what people are experiencing. In turn, the issue is that it might result in unhealthy coping strategies. To cope with their losses or grievances, they might feel invalidated, avoid having frank conversations with you, or even resort to intoxicants.

On the other hand, optimism is the firm conviction that things will ultimately improve. It differs from toxic positivity in several essential respects.

Optimistic vs Toxic Positivity
Optimistic vs Toxic Positivity

Being optimistic can help people navigate stormy waters. Psychotherapists will use methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help patients suffering from depression, for instance, learn to replace negative ideas with positive ones.

You may learn from negative experiences and move on if you look at things objectively. Suppressing uncomfortable emotions or traumatic memories can impair your mental well-being and harm your relationships.

Signs/Examples of Toxic Positivity at Work

Signs/Examples of Toxic Positivity at Work
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It might be challenging to spot toxic positivity in the workplace. Frequently, people misinterpret it as genuine optimism or well-intentioned inspiration and enthusiasm. And while having a strong positive work culture is desirable, once that culture begins to pressure the team, it can do more harm than good.

The first telltale of toxic positivity at a workplace is leaders’ or management’s disregard for the company’s reality. It occurs when managers cherry-pick solely positive outcomes or events to impose positivity. Any effort to discuss a potential issue or concern with them is seen as having a bad attitude.

For example, it’s reasonable to assume that brainstorming sessions and meetings are significantly less effective and productive in a toxic workplace. Fear of retaliation prevents people from voicing their opinions or providing constructive criticism.

The issue with positivity culture is that it fosters an environment where employees prefer to accept what their supervisors or coworkers say without question or criticism.

Finally, forced optimism fosters a workplace where issues aren’t discussed or acknowledged. Instead, problems are disregarded because doing so is discouraged within the organization. Additionally, it is not unusual for those who operate in this setting to be vulnerable to manipulation or guilt-tripping.

Here’s an example of toxic positivity at work. During a business meeting, a director and his colleague rudely and disrespectfully bashed a team of three independent contractor employees for not doing what he wanted. He rebuked the team for not following his instructions.

There was no way the team could have read the director’s mind because the director never reached out directly to provide specific requests.

Instead of being emotionally regulated, he used a stern tone of voice, with rude and unwarranted remarks like, “If you did your homework about this situation, you would have known better,” making the entire team uncomfortable.

The project leader of the contractors was caught entirely by surprise and felt horrible about the situation. He immediately acknowledged the director’s feelings and redirected his team to do what the emotionally unregulated client wanted.

Still, the director and his colleague continued to demean the contract team. And the project manager and director never once acknowledged the hard work and hundreds of hours the contractor put into the project.

Afterward, the project manager said, “Let’s all put this behind us and be our very best selves,” never acknowledging the feelings of the contractors who felt disrespected and demeaned.

The situation described above is a sign of a highly dysfunctional culture that allows people to disrespect others and lash out without any consequences other than to be given a positive affirmation about becoming more centered.

As a result, the employees quit the next day and wrote scathing reviews about the company and the director on every hiring board they could find. Losing three independent contractor employees had substantial financial and severe consequences for media, marketing, and public relations.

When Toxic Positivity Can Be Harmful

Toxic positivity is harmful when it is dismissive of others’ feelings. It is particularly egregious when the person is dismissive after disrespecting another person. 

When people do not feel seen and acknowledged for their feelings, positions, or stances, often more harmful conflict occurs, which could manifest in violence or defamation of character.

When toxic positivity is at its worst, it can harm the work atmosphere, erode trust, and hurt engagement and productivity.

People prefer to hide their shortcomings in settings like this, avoid having difficult conversations and feel less inspired to take the initiative and promote new ideas.

Additionally, it creates a tense atmosphere in which individuals feel disengaged and become less productive. The APA estimates that 550 million workdays are missed annually due to stress-related conditions.

The cost to the American economy of this loss in productivity is more than $500 billion.

Reframe Toxic Positive Phrases

Reframe Toxic Positive Phrases
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Instead of fighting negativity with positivity, adopt a more empathetic and human-centered strategy to recognize and affirm your emotions rather than invalidating them. Here are some toxic positive phrases I’ve reframed.

Let’s put this all behind us.”

Instead, say, “There have been some hurtful words here today. That is not how we conduct ourselves. We can all do better. It’s safe to assume we all have some hurt feelings today. What can we do to improve our time here next time?”

It’ll all work out in the end.”

Instead, say: This must be a tough time. Let’s talk about ways to get through this the best way possible.

No problem. All is good. Don’t worry about it. I don’t take things that personally.”

Instead, say: “This is something that does impact our situation. Let’s make sure we can both do this better next time. May I advise you on how to do it better next time?”

Stop being so sensitive – life is easier than you think.”

Instead, say, “This is hard. Can I do anything to help?”

Deal With Toxic Positivity at Work with Best Practice Strategies

Deal With Toxic Positivity at Work with Best Practice Strategies
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Use a mirroring approach with empathy. Ask how you can help the other person rather than tell them it will all work out. Acknowledge their feelings and then ask for more understanding, “This must feel <name or describe whatever emotion they are going through>. Tell me about it….” Then mirror back what they are saying and show empathy again. After, move toward a better next step that helps them get out of the rabbit hole with your understanding.

Acknowledge what the other person is saying and feeling. If they continue to go into a rabbit hole, regardless of your counseling, it may be beyond your skill set, and they should seek counseling or professional help.

If someone shows signs of extreme need, you must help them more seriously – especially if they are a threat to themselves or others. If you continue to experience conflict after using these principles, keep them talking and get help immediately.

Final Word

Unlike toxic positivity, a truly happy workplace fosters relationships between team members and their employers, which addresses the surface-level aspects of daily communication and problem-solving.

Long-term benefits result from making extra efforts to foster a healthy work atmosphere. Empirical research demonstrates how productive workplace culture affects the effectiveness of the team as a whole.

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