Can positivity go too far? Yes! Especially when it’s used to manipulate or deny others’ very real experiences or feelings. Toxic positivity can also happen by accident when someone does not know what to say or how to be supportive. It’s called “toxic positivity,” and unfortunately, it happens all the time and can even have a negative impact on your success at work.
What is Toxic Positivity?
Toxic positivity is the belief that you can solve problems by dismissing negative emotions and focusing on the positive.
When we asked hundreds of you in our Science of People audience how many experienced toxic positivity in the last week, 67.8% of you said yes!
In this article, we’ll look at what toxic positivity is, how it’s different from positive thinking, the signs to look out for, its negative consequences, and 10 ways to manage and overcome it.
What is Toxic Positivity at Work?
Toxic positivity at work is a belief from coworkers or leaders that you can solve problems by dismissing negative emotions and focusing on the positive, according to research1https://www.susandavid.com/book#order-now. Toxic positivity is not necessarily about being truly positive. I personally like to think of it as insecurity masked in positivity.
Unfortunately, toxic positivity is often used as a tactic for manipulating others to think or act in a certain way for one’s own benefit. In this way, it’s also a form of gaslighting. While it may look like positivity on the surface, it is typically characterized by the suppression of negative emotions and the dismissal of any challenges or difficulties.
The irony is that it feels like it should be motivating because it sounds “positive.” However, it often confuses people about how they truly feel about or perceive a situation. Some of the disorienting, dismissive, “positive” phrases and quotes you might hear people say to others and themselves include:
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “You’re lucky to be here.”
- “Just stay positive and look at the bright side.”
- “Don’t worry, be happy. Everything is fine.”
- “It’s not that bad.”
- “It could be worse.”
- “Just think happy thoughts.”
- “I’m fine!” (Are you?!)
When toxic positivity shows up at work, it’s often confusing and difficult to identify, especially when there is a power dynamic at play. For example, employees may strive to please their leader, even to the detriment of their well-being and the company’s well-being, because they want to be perceived as a team player. As a result, employees may deny their struggles or fail to bring up important issues for fear of coming across as negative and losing their job.
How is Toxic Positivity Different From Positive Thinking?
Positive thinking is not the same thing as toxic positivity. In fact, positive thinkers can be more critical and realistic than people constantly putting on a happy face or saying everything is fine even when it isn’t. Positive thinkers usually have healthy self-esteem because they are rooted in reality, while people with toxic positivity traits are usually grasping for some sense of security and denying how they really feel.
“Tough emotions like sadness are not negative. They are normal. At the heart of it, a failure to acknowledge difficult emotions through forced, false positivity is a failure to see ourselves—an unseeing of our humanity.”–Susan David, Ph.D.
While toxic positivity often denies reality, positive thinking sees reality for what it is and seeks to problem-solve or approach issues with a growth mindset. Unlike toxic positivity, which suppresses, manipulates, and denies reality, positive thinking is a way of looking at life that helps people to focus on opportunities and see the bigger picture.
8 Signs and Consequences of Toxic Positivity at Work
There are several signs and consequences of toxic positivity. If you recognize these behaviors in yourself or your colleagues, it may be time to take action.
You’re surrounded by “yes” people
One likely sign you’re experiencing toxic positivity at work is noticing that your colleagues rarely, if ever, share their concerns, dislikes, or disagreements with others’ ideas, especially those in power. You might notice many of your colleagues tend to act agreeable or fall prey to a phenomenon called groupthink.
Groupthink occurs because employees don’t want to rock the boat by saying something won’t work for fear that they may disappoint their boss or seem like they are not team players. As a result, they tend to go along with things they might disagree with, and others are none the wiser.
Flattery is excessive
Toxic positivity often shows up in the form of flattery. When flattery is used to manipulate others, it’s rarely genuine, even if it’s true. At work, you may notice that colleagues try to get others to do things with flattery. While it may be appreciated initially, the pattern can become patronizing or demeaning.
You notice a lot of fake smiles or mismatched expressions
When people are genuinely happy and enjoying their day, you’ll notice the crow’s feet in the corner of their eyes which indicates a real smile. However, when someone is trying to cover up their real feelings, you might be able to notice what they really feel through the micro expressions on their face! They include fake smiles or looks of disgust or contempt.
It’s possible the fake smiles you’re seeing are masking sadness or even depression! In fact, a 10-year study2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3035563/ found that when people deny their negative feelings as a coping mechanism, they had higher levels of depression.
Busyness is up, but productivity is down
When employees are told to “stay positive,” “cheer up,” or “power through,” they may feel like their negative emotions or concerns are not being validated. This can lead to employees feeling unheard and unsupported, which not only negatively impacts employees’ mental health3https://scholarcommons.sc.edu/senior_theses/607/ but also reduces productivity4https://www.fastcompany.com/40411368/your-positive-work-culture-might-be-making-your-team-less-productive.
As a result, they may continue to do busy work that appears productive to appease the status quo but will not bring up ways that a process or a situation might be improved.
Stress shows up in disguise
Toxic positivity can also lead to increased stress levels5https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=aNstEAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=%22toxic+positivity%22+increases+stress&ots=flLkTK0OB9&sig=V1_Uk01ZDJE9wKxS4jknX0chX7k in the workplace. When employees are told, “It’s for a good cause” and “Don’t worry,” they may feel like they have to suppress their negative emotions without processing them. This is especially common in nonprofit organizations or among teaching and nursing professions, where people are often taken advantage of for their sacrifice.
As a result, toxic positivity can lead to employees feeling anxious, stressed, and overwhelmed. Over time, the stress may reveal itself through increased sick days, decreased mental alertness, and burnout.
Work relationships feel weak and inauthentic
Toxic positivity can also damage relationships in the workplace or produce weak, inauthentic connections with others. When employees are told to “Look at the bright side” or “It’s not that bad,” they may feel like they can’t express their true feelings to their colleagues or managers.
As a result, toxic positivity can lead to employees feeling isolated and alone, rarely working through their struggles or problem-solving honestly with each other.
There is little innovation happening
Toxic positivity can also reduce creativity and innovation6https://wjarr.com/content/study-happiness-work-society-performance-and-tiredness in the workplace. When employees are told to “stop focusing on problems” or “everything is fine,” they may feel like they cannot identify or express the root of a problem, take risks, or share their unique ideas to solve an issue.
As a result, toxic positivity can make employees feel stifled and bored, reducing creativity and innovation over time.
You’re unsure about your true strengths and abilities
If someone tells you how amazing they think your ideas are but doesn’t listen or incorporate them, you may start to lose your sense of what is true about your work and what you bring to the table. You may also feel like you don’t have an honest understanding of your performance.
For example, a boss may act like an empowering leader who delegates responsibility because they say they “believe in you.” Yet, they may micromanage you and take credit for your work, causing a sense of confusion. And when you ask for feedback, it may feel like inauthentic flattery without constructive support.
10 Tips to Manage and Overcome Toxic Positivity in the Workplace
Toxic positivity is a real issue in the workplace, and it can be difficult to recognize. But if you know the signs, you can take action and protect yourself.
#1 Practice and promote emotional agility
To combat toxic positivity and promote a healthy culture, it’s important to create a supportive work environment where employees feel comfortable expressing themselves, whether that be positive or negative. This includes practicing your own emotional agility too! Emotional agility7https://hbr.org/2013/11/emotional-agility is the practice of using your emotions to help you understand your thoughts and make decisions.
- Promote emotional agility with colleagues: For example, if someone shares a concern, respond by saying, “I understand you’re feeling stressed about this project. I want to understand where that’s coming from and what we can do to support you. Let’s talk about how we can address it together.” This not only validates that their feelings are real but also offers genuine support.
- Practice emotional agility yourself: It’s also important to acknowledge and accept your own emotions. If you’ve suppressed your emotions for a long time, it may be harder to recognize them. So you might start by journaling and writing down how your daily interactions make you feel in your body. Are your shoulders tense? Is your jaw clenched? Do you feel queasy? From there, you can identify the root of your feelings to better express yourself to others.
#2 Engage in empathy and compassion
It’s important to seek to understand someone’s perspective without judgment, checking yourself for your own biases and reactions. When you feel uncomfortable with your own emotional response to someone else’s distress or concern, you may unknowingly respond with toxic positivity in an attempt to suppress your own anxiety about the situation.
For example, a colleague may approach you and say, “That meeting was really hard. I don’t have a lot of confidence in what the plan is moving forward.”
- A toxic positivity response might be to say, “Just trust the process. You got this. Don’t worry about it!” While that response may sound like it should be motivating, it completely dismisses your colleague’s concerns and doesn’t help them work through it.
- A healthier, empathetic response would be to say, “Thanks for sharing your concerns. Let’s talk through what felt hard about it and pinpoint where there might be confusion. Let me know how I can support you. We’re in this together.”
#3 When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a break!
Sometimes it’s hard for us to step away from our problems or worries because we fear leaving things unfinished or unresolved—but taking breaks can actually help us solve those problems faster and more effectively later on and give ourselves space from toxic people.
In fact, research shows8https://health.cornell.edu/about/news/study-breaks-stress-busters#:~:text=Research%20shows%20that%20taking%20purposeful,%E2%80%9D%20(see%20the%20research). that taking a break can increase productivity and focus. And just because you’re taking a break doesn’t mean your brain isn’t working. On the contrary, your brain subconsciously works through problems in what researchers call the incubation period9https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01076/full. You might think of it like baking bread. When you bake bread, there’s an important period of time that you need to let your dough rest and rise before you put it in the oven.
So instead of listening to that toxic positive voice telling you to “power through” when you’re overwhelmed, give yourself some breathing room to let your ideas incubate for a while.
#4 Ask more questions and give less advice
When someone shares their concerns with you, your knee-jerk reaction may be to provide advice or ease someone’s discomfort by saying something like, “Just cheer up. It will be ok.” On the surface, this may feel like it’s helpful, but in actuality, it’s often a toxic positivity response stemming from your own discomfort.
Most often, when someone shares their concerns with you, what they really want is a listening, empathetic ear, not an expert to fix it. Unless they ask you for advice specifically, refrain. Instead, ask questions that help people work through their thoughts and feelings.
A better way to respond might be to say something like,
- “Tell me more about that. How does it make you feel?”
- “Do you want to talk about it?”
- “What can I do to help?”
- “That sounds hard. What do you think should be done?”
#5 Pursue meaning rather than happiness
Research shows10https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225206486_In_Pursuit_of_Happiness_Empirical_Answers_to_Philosophical_Questions that the pursuit of happiness is rather counter-productive. It turns out that the more we pursue happiness, the harder it is to achieve. Rather than pursue happiness, you may find greater life satisfaction by pursuing meaning11https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/12/191210131935.htm. What does that look like?
It may be as simple as reframing your mind to think differently about your life.
- Instead of thinking, “Why am I not happy?” Ask, “What meaning do I have in my life?”
- Instead of thinking, “Why isn’t this situation making me happy?” Ask, “What kind of meaning can I create from this situation?”
- Instead of thinking, “Should I be happy?” Ask, “Where can I find meaning?”
There are also activities you can try to pursue more meaning in your life, including setting goals. Check out this helpful resource!
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#6 Learn how to read body language
When someone is being toxically positive, it’s often masking a deeper insecurity or need to control the situation. There are a few body language cues you can pick up on to determine how someone might really feel about something. By being able to recognize these cues, you may be able to uncover someone’s true feelings and help them work through their insecurity.
Some of the body language cues to watch for include:
- Crossed arms: Sign someone may be angry, defensive, anxious, or critical
- Hand on chest: Sign someone may be stressed or anxious
- Feet and torso turned away: Sign someone may want to leave
- Hunched shoulders: Sign someone may feel vulnerable
- Rolling shoulders: Sign someone may be stressed
- Shoulder rubbing: Sign someone may be trying to relieve stress
- Heavy blinking: Sign someone is unsure how to express themselves
- Touching the neck dimple: Sign someone may be trying to self-soothe
- Neck stretch: Sign someone may feel uncomfortable in the situation
When you notice someone displaying one of these cues, use it to ask questions and disarm toxic positivity with empathy. Perhaps you respond by saying something like, “I can tell that you want to see the bright side of this situation, but it seems like you might actually feel uncomfortable with how things are going. Can we have an honest conversation about it? I think we can work through this together.”
Pro Tip: There are so many more behavioral body language cues that could indicate the hidden meaning behind someone’s emotions. Check them all out in our founder, Vanessa Van Edward’s book Cues: Master the Secret Language of Charismatic Communication, where you can learn all 97 cues.
#7 Promote a growth mindset
To combat toxic positivity in the workplace, it’s important to acknowledge that both success and failure are a reality. Encourage learning from failures and setbacks rather than focusing solely on positive outcomes and goals.
To promote a growth mindset at work, you might try a few different regular practices, including:
- Sharing stories with each other about challenges you’ve overcome
- Checking in on both the wins and the losses on a weekly basis
- Encouraging people to bring up ideas on what can be improved, and creating a plan to address those ideas and concerns
- Giving people challenges that get them out of their comfort zone
- Giving out rewards to people who take risks for the benefit of the organization
- Refraining from micromanagement by empowering employees with responsibility
#8 Lead by example
It’s important to model healthy behavior by being authentic and vulnerable, especially if you are in a managerial or leadership position. To lead by example,
- Share your own struggles and how you overcome them. For example, during a weekly check-in, you may share not just your wins but also your struggles.
- Ask for help when you need it. Don’t try to power through on your own. You may have a lot on your plate that others on your team can support you with.
- Be someone who welcomes and takes feedback seriously. For example, after crossing milestones, perhaps you make it a part o your rhythm to walk through what worked, what didn’t work, and what might have been confusing.
- Reward people for bringing up both triumphs and struggles. For example, this may be as simple as affirming someone or thanking them for sharing what they’re going through, but also taking it seriously and trying to get to the root of the issue if needed.
Your openness shows your colleagues that it’s OK to acknowledge difficulties and inspires them to open up more too. Not only does your vulnerability build a stronger team culture, but it also boosts productivity and morale.
#9 Use the FBI approach to confront it
When you share your concerns with someone and their response is toxic positivity, one of the best ways to approach them about how they made you feel is to use Simon Sinek’s strategy for confrontation he calls the FBI approach.
The FBI approach includes sharing three important pieces of information:
- Feelings: State your specific feelings.
- Behavior: Share the specific behavior that caused the feeling (refrain from using words like always and never).
- Impact: Explain the impact the behavior had or will have.
For example, this approach in action might look something like this: “When you dismissed my concerns about how much time we have to work on the project (behavior), it made me feel like you don’t care about me or my time (feeling). My concern is that if you keep dismissing how long these projects take, we’ll continue to miss our client deadlines (impact).”
#10 Keep learning with books and resources
Whether you are a victim of toxic positivity or you’ve found yourself exhibiting toxic positivity, you are not alone. Fortunately, there are plenty of resources to learn from. Some of my favorites specifically for how to combat toxic positivity in the workplace include:
- Dangers of Toxic Positivity (Part 1 and 2), featuring Susan David and Brené Brown
- Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life by Susan David
- Toxic Positivity: Keeping it Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy by Whitney Goodman
- No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work by Liz Fosslein and Mollie West Duffy
Bonus: Toxic Positivity in Relationships
Can the optimistic gleam of a relationship be blinding? It can be if it obscures genuine feelings and real issues. This facet of positivity, when taken to an extreme, becomes toxic. It becomes especially detrimental when positivity is used as a crutch to evade emotional responsibility or the realities of a partnership.
What is Toxic Positivity in Relationships?
Toxic positivity in relationships is the overemphasis on positive aspects and the intentional avoidance or invalidation of the less cheerful, but very real, emotions and challenges that come with intimate connections.
What Does Toxic Positivity Look Like in Relationships?
Toxic positivity in a romantic relationship often manifests as one partner, or both, dismissing or minimizing feelings of sadness, anxiety, or worry, for the facade of an “all is well” partnership. It isn’t about genuine happiness; instead, it’s about presenting the relationship in the best light, even if it’s deceiving.
Often, this kind of positivity is used to avoid confrontation or deeper conversations. It can sometimes even be a means of emotional manipulation, making it a kind of emotional gaslighting. While it may appear as a proactive and upbeat approach, it usually involves suppressing negative emotions and disregarding the authentic struggles in the relationship.
Common phrases indicating toxic positivity in relationships are:
- “Let’s not ruin our day by talking about this now.”
- “We’re better off than most couples.”
- “Don’t overthink; just be happy with what we have.”
- “Love conquers all. Why worry?”
- “Look at the couple next door. We don’t have their problems.”
Toxic positivity can be elusive within a relationship, especially when love and commitment come into play. One might overlook the problems and prioritize maintaining peace over addressing pressing matters.
How is Toxic Positivity in Relationships Different From Genuine Optimism?
Optimism in relationships isn’t the same as toxic positivity. Truly optimistic partners address challenges head-on, grounded in the belief that they can overcome them together. They are authentic in their emotions, expressing both joy and concerns.
In contrast, toxic positivity forces a rosy perspective even when a situation calls for reflection, dialogue, or sometimes, even conflict. Genuine optimism grows the bond, while toxic positivity weakens the foundation by avoiding essential emotional interactions.
“Every emotion, whether joyous or sorrowful, is a piece of the intricate puzzle of our being. Ignoring one means you’re missing out on the complete picture.”Dr. Monica White
While genuine optimism embraces the ups and downs, toxic positivity brushes issues under the carpet, hoping they disappear but usually allowing them to fester.
Signs of Toxic Positivity in Relationships
- Avoiding Tough Conversations: You or your partner often sidestep discussions that might lead to disagreements.
- Surface-level Interactions: Conversations rarely go deeper than daily happenings, avoiding feelings or concerns.
- Overemphasis on the Positive: Every situation, no matter how dire, is spun into a positive light.
- Invalidation of Feelings: Phrases like “It’s not a big deal” or “Just focus on the good” are commonly used.
Identifying these signs in your relationship may be an indication that it’s time to delve deeper, fostering authentic communication and growth.
Toxic Positivity Key Takeaways
In summary, keep these tips in mind when dealing with coworkers who seem overly positive or friendly—they may not actually be as good friends as they appear!
- Practice and promote emotional agility. Accept and validate both negative and positive feelings.
- Engage in empathy and compassion. Be with people where they’re at.
- When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a break! Be honest with yourself to avoid burnout.
- Ask more questions and give less advice. Be an active listener, not an expert.
- Pursue meaning rather than happiness. Reframe your mind for greater fulfillment.
- Learn how to read body language. Detect what’s under the surface of toxic behavior.
- Promote a growth mindset. Celebrate both wins and losses.
- Lead by example. Show people that it’s ok to be vulnerable and make mistakes.
- Use the FBI approach to confront toxic people (feeling, behavior, impact).
- Keep learning with books and resources.
Wondering how to identify other kinds of toxic behavior at work? Check out our article 31 Toxic Personality Traits To Spot in Yourself And Others.
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