“It’s OK! Don’t worry, it’ll get better!” Have you ever received this kind of answer from your boss?
When everybody feels down and unmotivated, managers can try to boost team morale by encouraging them to keep a positive mindset and attitude no matter what. Confirming their negative thoughts is, of course, not the right solution to these situations. Yet, being over-positive at all times can lead to toxic positivity in the workplace.
We are humans. We go through various emotions. We doubt, get angry, lose hope… However, experiencing negative feelings sometimes helps us to learn, grow, and bounce back. Toxic positivity holds and blocks these sentiments. It doesn’t consider how employees feel professionally or personally.
Let’s not beat around the bush. Promoting good vibes sounds like a great idea to enhance an enjoyable working atmosphere and keep everyone engaged. Yet, it can be counterproductive if not done with a balanced and human-centric approach. This article gives you examples of toxic positivity, explains the consequences of this approach, and shares tips to avoid building toxic positivity at work.
Toxic positivity explained
The definition of toxic positivity in the workplace
In the workplace, toxic positivity happens when promoting a positive attitude does more wrong than good or if this behavior is not genuine. Adopting a positive mindset and being optimistic is a great soft skill to have in both professional and private settings. Yet, an overdose of positivity is inappropriate and can cause considerable harm to people’s mental health and to the company.
Serious issues can arise related to employee experience and turnover if these practices are superficial and systemic. Eventually, instead of boosting your staff’s morale and engagement, it does the opposite, leading to more problems. Toxic positivity results in a lack of consideration and authenticity. Lastly, it is essential to remember that these behaviors exist on both the management and workers’ sides.
The difference between positive support and toxic positivity
Nobody wants to be in an environment where everyone is moody and pessimistic. But, in a different regard, a workplace where the management isn’t transparent and doesn’t accept challenges isn’t good either. Similarly, collaborating with colleagues who only see the bright side, even when there is clearly an issue to tackle, can be frustrating for the rest of the team. So, where is the line between positive support and toxic positivity?
One is based on trust, honesty, and the consideration of people's feelings. The other pushes those emotions down and pretends everything is fine even when it’s not. Moreover, there is a right time for positivity. For example, you wouldn’t tell your team members that there is nothing to worry about if you just announced that the company is considering laying off some people.
In a work environment with toxic positivity, people focus mainly on the bright side and skip the negative topics and news. This gives the impression that everything is fine when it is not. There are always ups and downs and areas of improvement. A classic example is when, during a difficult time, leaders tell their workforce that they have nothing to worry about and the company is still doing great. But then they close down offices and cut off jobs soon after.
Refusing to discuss challenges and issues happening in the workplace
Another classic behavior exemplifying toxic positivity in the workplace is difficulty talking about sensitive and challenging matters. For instance, when managers avoid discussing with their coworkers some issues with the way they work or their performances. It can also be employees keeping concerns to themselves because they don’t want to sound negative or pessimistic. This prevents everyone from growing and can lead to serious problems for the business. Ultimately, it can do more bad than good to people and the organization itself.
Minimizing or ignoring employees’ negative feedback
Another common example of toxic positivity is when leaders tend to minimize their staff’s feedback. Workers raise an issue and get the well-known responses, “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine!” or “Don’t you think you are exaggerating a bit? It’s not that bad.” Sometimes, it’s true, sometimes not. And even if things do get better, being present and listening to your team members is key to fostering an employee-centric and healthy work environment. This means that when they request to have a constructive conversation about a certain matter and get it off their chest, managers have to answer this need and be supportive.
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The impact of toxic positivity at work on mental health and other associated aspects
Lack of trust
Toxic positivity often implies poor communication to hide the “not so positive” truth or pretend it’s not a big deal. But as we all know, the truth always comes out. When it does, employees might be disappointed, frustrated, and, eventually, lose trust in their teammates and management. However, trust is essential to grow a business and thrive. If your staff doesn’t trust you or their colleagues, working together can’t be as constructive and successful as it could be.
Absence of consideration
Toxic positivity makes employees feel their emotions and opinions are undervalued and not considered. Workers are not being genuinely listened to and are less likely to share their feelings when something negative happens because they know it won’t be dealt with appropriately. Yet, acknowledging negative emotions and situations is as important as celebrating the good ones to have a healthy work environment. Toxic positivity makes people feel that talking about issues, stress, and roadblocks is not right. When they dare to mention it, they feel shame and guilt, leading to internalization and gaslighting behaviors. Ultimately, this repression can mean losing your best talent and affecting employee satisfaction for those who stay.
Stress and risk of burnout
There is a difference between complaining and raising a real problem. Building a facade to always look and sound positive because it is the “company culture” isn’t right. Keeping people from expressing how they feel or talking about issues they are facing can trigger anxiety and further psychological consequences. Moreover, in the long term, repressing emotions increases stress and impacts other essential aspects, such as workplace connection and engagement. Eventually, constantly pretending everything is fine and being unable to trust colleagues can also lead to symptoms of burnout.
A threat to the company itself
If toxic positivity spreads and becomes a pattern, it can be an actual concern for the company itself. Workers start to minimize the risks of certain problems, pretending it’s “not that bad” and it will get better. Instead of dealing with the matter and trying to find an effective solution, they believe that, somehow, everything will turn out as planned. This can truly harm a business as some people will see the issue and want to tackle it before it’s too late.
The problem with toxic positivity is that it often spreads fake positivity. Not only does it cause trust issues, but it also prevents employees from building strong connections. Having different points of view and disagreeing are part of human relationships. How could we grow personally and professionally if our opinions are never questioned? Honesty and constructive feedback are essential to enhance genuine interactions in a work setting. Lead by example. Be sincere and authentic, and encourage your teams to do the same. Through this, employees can trust that if something is wrong with their work, they will be informed. This boosts trust and creates a more peaceful work environment, as people know that if an issue happens, it will be addressed.
Be as supportive in the good as the bad moments
Comforting, supporting, and encouraging your coworkers in challenging moments are essential. But acknowledging they aren’t feeling well, letting them express their emotions, and considering them are even more important. We are all humans. Employees and managers can feel doubt, fear, or pain. Experiencing negative emotions is actually healthy. Remember, the key is balance. If you only focus on the positive and wipe away the negative, there is no balance. We can’t only feel positive emotions. The best way to grow and succeed is by going through difficult times and overcoming challenges. So, tell your staff that feeling down sometimes is normal and also OK.
Encourage open and transparent communication
Create a safe space where both managers and team members can discuss positive and negative topics without worrying about the consequences of these conversations. A real positive work environment is a place where people can talk openly about their thoughts and get support accordingly. Moreover, your employees must know that if something is wrong with their job or the workplace, somebody will tell them instead of pretending everything is fine. That’s a process that goes both ways. You want your staff to share their opinions and feelings with you. But you also need to be transparent with them regarding the company’s situation and their work.
Stay realistic, and don’t sugarcoat problems
There are some conversations we would all prefer to avoid. Unfortunately, difficult discussions are sometimes necessary, and you shouldn’t minimize problems when they occur. Being realistic and not pretending things are better than they actually are is crucial to preventing toxic positivity. Ultimately, sugarcoating issues harms your workforce and can threaten your success. People want honesty and authenticity, Millennials and Gen Z even more than previous generations. Not providing them with this can cost you your best talent and eventually have serious consequences on your business overall. For instance, the word will spread about this fake positivity in your company culture, which can impact your talent attraction and partnerships.
Fighting against toxic positivity in the workplace and adopting positive support instead are crucial for any healthy work environment. Whether it is done intentionally or not, pretending everything is fine and minimizing problems does more harm than good. HR teams should pay close attention to not letting these behaviors become habits and encourage constructive feedback, transparency, and trust. We hope this article gives you a better understanding of how these unhealthy practices can affect your staff as well as your business and what to do to avoid them.
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Paulyne is a hybrid work specialist, who writes about sustainability, flexible work models and employee experience.