The Downside of Being Up – Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

Have you ever worked with a leader or co-worker who is incessantly cheery?


Sometimes, being positive causes more harm than good. Too much positivity can become toxic and have a negative impact on the workplace.


Toxic positivity is the belief that we should only have a positive response in the face of pain, difficulties, or problems. It assumes that all negative emotions are bad and counterproductive while asserting that happiness should be our singular response, regardless of the situation. It forces people to smile while the ship is sinking, instead of looking for the PFDs! This can quickly become very problematic. 


Humans are complex creatures with a range of emotions, none of which are inherently good or bad. Forcing people to push aside difficult emotions invalidates their experiences. Replacing all negative emotions with positivity can cause psychological harm.


Challenging Times


The last 18 months have been heavy as we’ve navigated our way through a global pandemic, bouts of isolation, confronting the systemic inequality that led to the death of George Floyd and so many others, economic uncertainty, and the rediscovery of mass graves at Residential Schools throughout North America.


At home and work, many of us are starting to have some overdue and extremely difficult conversations about these things and more. Allowing toxic positivity into these conversations would be extremely counterproductive. 


Hard conversations bring up valid emotions that deserve to be acknowledged, heard and worked through. As a leader in the workplace, it is your job to find the balance between healthy optimism and allowing people space to experience difficult emotions. Here are two areas where you can counteract the negative effects of toxic positivity.


Unmet Expectations


Allowing space for conflict around unmet expectations and finding ways to work through it without resorting to toxic positivity is a must-have skill for leaders in the workplace.


Working through clashing personalities, unmet needs, poor performance, insufficient resources and inequality require real conversation. Statements such as “well, at least you have a job,” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it,” “stay positive, it will work itself out,” or “it could be so much worse” do nothing to resolve the concern, conflict, or frustration. They can leave an employee feeling unheard and that their concern is not taken seriously.


Instead, try to actively listen and validate the person’s experience in the situation. Let them feel angry, sad, or frustrated. Ask what changes they think will help improve the situation. From there, continue to work towards a resolution.


Building Trust


Toxic positivity can sometimes happen insidiously when employees don’t feel they can trust their leaders or their peers. Instead of being open and honest, employees may resort to toxic positivity to avoid conflict or unwanted attention.


When this happens, employees can quickly become disengaged. They may vent about problems to everyone except those in a position to address them. Start building trust by validating their experiences and acknowledging difficult or problematic circumstances and progress to offering tangible solutions that will create the change they need.  


Initiating difficult conversations in a safe space is an important step in learning what employees are really thinking. As a leader, it is also okay to voice your concerns. Credibility and vulnerability are cornerstones of building workplace trust; acknowledge that the Emperor has no clothes! Then, as the leader, determine how you can help to resolve the issue or concern.


The Right Kind of Positivity


It is great to bring positivity and optimism into the workplace; doing so can help create a more engaged and productive team. It is not okay to use positivity to negate the experiences of others or to avoid dealing with very real problems and issues facing your employees.


Sitting with your employees as they work through difficult emotions will strengthen your relationship, increase the level of trust and make you a better leader. It might be tough but I promise it will be worth it.    


Reach out to AccessHR to discuss your HR challenges and how our Organization Assessment or Building Workplace Trust programs can help.


AccessHR Inc. provides professional HR consulting services with exceptional quality, creativity and ethical practice. When it comes to supporting clients, we focus on doing the right thing.