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How Toxic Positivity Stifles Growth in the Workplace

When people think of toxic workplaces, their minds can often go to ones with low employee morale, micromanagement, public shaming, lack of trust and transparency, and fear of retaliation. However, another insidious manifestation of toxic culture is toxic positivity. Anima Sahu summarizes this as “extreme positive thinking that leads to the masking of real life problems.” In the workplace, toxic positivity occurs when management encourages (through incentive or punishment) employees to be “hopeful” and to just “focus on the bright side” rather than openly and transparently navigate challenges and barriers head-on.

How Can Positivity Be a Bad Thing?

It should be no surprise that hope, optimism, and positivity are necessary for a healthy human existence and productive workplace. According to the American Psychological Association covering 11,000 employees across a variety of disciplines, researchers discovered that hope accounts for 14% of productivity. Hope and positivity are linked to healthier life outcomes, and warding off depression and stress. In another study, tis one from Harvard’s Human Flourishing Program, researchers examined the impact of hope on nearly 13,000 people with an average age of 66. They found those with more hope throughout their lives had better physical health, better health behaviors, better social support, and had fewer chronic health problems, less depression, less anxiety and a lower risk of cancer. Studies do show that being able to see the good in dire situations leads to a successful, happier life.

That being said, if your workplace fails to address (or even acknowledge) problems that arise, suppresses honest feedback, and promotes unrelenting optimism over reality, toxic positivity may be at play. In these situations, conflicts are rarely aired and therefore opportunity to resolve them becomes increasingly unlikely. Real change and growth requires that we openly discuss what our concerns and challenges are.

This can be particularly concerning when employees are reporting subtle acts of exclusion, micro-aggressions, and other issues that may be hard to tangibly articulate. Forced positivity in these situations can come across as minimization, victim-blaming, or tone-policing.

Causes of Toxic Positivity

  1. Misguided Leadership

There can be pressure within leadership positions to constantly maintain a positive, happy work environment. This can be either implicitly or explicitly demanded to be seen as a “good team player.” Certainly employee wellbeing and healthy work culture is essential for leaders to prioritize and maintain; however, when can erode the trust employees have in leadership, and make them feel that the positivity their leader requires is condescending, dishonest, and exhausting.

If you’ve realized that you are perpetuating toxic positivity as a leader, consider whether you’re deflecting from difficult emotions and conversations that make you uncomfortable. If this is the case, the toxic positivity may be for your benefit, rather than for the well-being of your employees. We espouse psychological safety at work — having an environment where people feel safe to be their true selves, name hard truths, and make mistakes — and toxic positivity can make the true nature of psychological safety nearly impossible.

2. Pressure to be a “Team Player” In a workplace where toxic positivity is the norm, voicing any “negativity” can feel akin to trying to sabotage your teammates and their work. If they keep their problems or worries to themselves, why can’t you? There is also the concern that you will impact morale, and you may even be subjected to levels of ostracization. The pressure to be positive for your team and keep things ‘happy’, can very often override the true reality of the work environment.