How to Recognize Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

2 min read
Fri, Mar 31, 2023

How to Recognize Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

A positive workplace is where everyone is cheerful and happy all of the time, right? 

Not exactly.

Harvard Medical School psychologist, Susan David, refers to this dynamic as the "tyranny of positivity" where "pleasant emotions" are seen as good and "difficult emotions" are bad. She continues, "For an organization to succeed, the staff needs to feel empowered to speak up when something worries them, even if these worries aren’t easy for their colleagues and superiors to hear."

Here are clear symptoms and how to recognize toxic positivity in the workplace.


What is Toxic Positivity?

Have you ever attempted to talk to a friend or colleague about something that was bothering you and instead of listening, they jumped in with platitudes about "thinking positive" instead of validating your discomfort? Or you were told you were "being negative" because you recognized something that concerned you? That's toxic positivity. 

Optimism is welcome, no doubt, but not at the expense of any and all negative feelings. Toxic positivity asks you to ignore what you see and be happy anyway. In the workplace, it can be especially harmful because happiness at all costs comes at the expense of employee well-being. 

See also: How and Why to Have More Vulnerable Conversations at Work


Examples of Toxic Positivity at Work

When an employee suggests that something is inappropriate or troublesome in the workplace, they should be heard and validated. Human resources must respect the well-being of their workforce by being trauma-informed and sensitive to the mental health of those they represent. Toxic positivity shuts this down.

Some examples of toxic positivity in the workplace include:

  • Employees who don't speak up in meetings because they fear their complaints will be dismissed.
  • Workers feeling overburdened but encouraged to work harder anyway.
  • Downplaying customer complaints when something is obviously wrong. 

Toxic positivity eventually leads to feelings of isolation, burnout and a potential loss of customers. 

How to Support Those Who Feel Unheard

Susan David recommends, "Don’t shrink from the hard conversations." Most importantly, leadership must provide safe spaces for employees to report concerns or problems within the organization and, if necessary, from customers. It may seem easy to downplay an experience that's different than your own but to others, your refusal to acknowledge it feels like gaslighting. The most successful businesses acknowledge their own imperfections and create an empathetic atmosphere of respect. Employees that feel psychologically safe will also thrive, creating a mindset of problem-solving and compassion rather than a problem-avoidance workplace culture. 

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