How to Identify Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

How to Identify Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

Too much of a good thing can be bad. Yes, even positivity!

Picture this, you go up to your boss and say that your manager has been making you work overtime every day of the week and calling you over the weekend for work-related issues. Instead of speaking to your manager, your boss smiles at you and says, “Thank you, your hard work is sincerely appreciated.” This is a clear example of how toxic positivity operates in the workplace.

Toxic positivity refers to a situation where genuine problems are dismissed with positivity instead of being discussed and resolved. This can create an oppressive work environment, leaving employees to feel that they are overexaggerating their problems. But how do you determine what toxic positivity is and differentiate it from genuine efforts to be encouraging and supportive? Let’s find out. 

What are the markers of toxic positivity?

1. Employees withholding feedback and criticism 

Meetings and brainstorming sessions are meant to be places where everyone speaks up and expresses their opinion. The interactions in such situations can help polish ideas and improve the performance of your business. 

If employees are afraid to speak up in meetings because they don’t want their feedback to be shut down as “being negative”, it is a clear-cut sign that the workplace has an excessively positive culture. This can bring about the opposite of innovation because no one dares to point out the flaws and shortcomings of, for instance, a marketing strategy. If a green light is given to ideas or pitches without any sort of feedback or critique from anyone, people in leadership positions should be wary of toxic positivity in the workplace. 

2. Co-workers downplaying your struggles/emotions.

Say employee A is having a bad day because they messed up a presentation or a report. Instead of sympathizing with them, their co-workers tell them it is okay because others usually make much bigger mistakes. This can make employee A feel like their emotions are unwarranted. 

Speaking from experience, people want to discuss work-related issues with their co-workers. If they shut your problems down, it can lead to a lot of stress. Talking your issues through can help you effectively move past negative feelings instead of dwelling on them. Meanwhile, if your coworkers or employees come to you with their frustrations or struggles, try to lend them an ear and give them a chance to vent. 

3. Leaders saying “everything is going to be fine” at a time of financial distress in the company

All leadership guides will tell you that it is important to remain positive in tough times and that you must not express too much discontent to your team, or they’ll lose all hope. However, if you are in a situation where layoffs are about to happen, it would be toxic to pretend that everything is fine and dandy. 

Instead, leaders need to show their teams that they are taking decisive steps to help them. This could include giving team members great references to ease the process of finding employment in the future as well as using their own contacts to inquire about openings in other companies. 

How can leaders be positive without being toxic?

Most toxic positivity is often well-meaning. You might just be trying to sound encouraging and supportive only to come across as dismissive. Leaders must replace toxic positivity with positive validation by acknowledging an employee’s negative emotions. One of the ways in which a leader can validate negative experiences is by being authentic. Much like everyone else, leaders aren’t happy all the time and freely discussing that can make you more approachable.  

To address your team members or employees’ concerns positively, you can discuss the problems and the systems that caused them without trying to point fingers and find the people responsible for the issues. This will help employees find mistakes, learn from them and avoid making the same mistakes in the future. 

If you are concerned about your attempts at encouragement coming off as toxic, here are some common toxic positivity statements and some positive validations to replace them with:

  • Instead of saying “Cheer up”, say “Your feelings are justified, what can I do to help you through the problem?”. 
  • Replace “Don’t think about it” with “Tell me how you are feeling”. 
  • Don’t say “It’s all going to work out”. Instead, try “I hear you, and I am sorry that you are going through this.”

Finally, it is important to know that everything boils down to being transparent and honest with your employees. By affirming and validating an employee’s feelings, you create a space for them to express themselves. It also tells them that the company views them as actual people instead of mindless worker bees. While achieving the perfect work culture might be nearly impossible in one go, regular conversations with employees and management can take you closer to this goal over time. 

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Header image courtesy of Pixabay


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