WTF   //   January 19, 2023

WTF is toxic positivity and how does it impact work culture

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Have you ever been upset by something at work and a colleague showered you with phrases like “everything happens for a reason” and “just be positive”? It’s not always comforting when we need validation.

Toxic positivity is the belief that people should maintain a positive mindset no matter how dire or difficult a situation.

“It’s when someone is feeling down, and people dive in to make them feel better and we cheer them out of it,” said Anne Moss Rogers, a mental health and suicide prevention speaker. “What that does is invalidates someone’s feelings to begin with.”

How can I identify toxic positivity at work?

Aside from the aforementioned phrases, toxic positivity at work might sound like “you’re bringing everyone down,” “you have an amazing job,” “reframe your thinking,” or “good vibes only,” when you’re dealing with a bad day at work. It’s the idea that if someone just smiled more or tried harder, the outcome would be different.

In general, people might recite positive quotes about hard situations, act like a cheerleader, or dismiss people’s difficult feelings.

“When you show up with toxic positivity, you are not hearing, seeing, or understanding the situation,” said Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity and impact at equity management platform Carta and part of the Brown Table Talk podcast, where she dove into this issue. “It’s like you’re just slapping an Instagram quote as a solution. You are minimizing, negating or erasing my experience and blaming me for what’s happening to me in the workplace.”

“When you show up with toxic positivity, you are not hearing, seeing, or understanding the situation.”
Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity and impact at Carta.

While optimism can be helpful, it’s not always realistic to what someone needs. 

If toxic positivity continues for too long, it can lead to experiencing guilt for being sad or angry, and someone might even begin to experience gaslighting. It largely invalidates human experience and can lead to trauma, isolation or unhealthy coping mechanisms.

“You start to think, maybe I am the problem, maybe I am imagining this,” said Mallick. “Toxic positivity can be a form of manipulation.”

How does it impact work culture?

A workplace where everyone always needs to be happy and positive is not going to create a good culture in the end. Toxic positivity can lead to burnout due to feeling obligated to express an emotion that you aren’t actually feeling. It can also lead to resentment if a colleague does not feel heard or listened to.

“Toxic positivity ruins how we listen,” said Rogers. “We need to listen with more empathy so we don’t glaze over their sadness.”

Rogers says that it can also diminish connections between colleagues. If someone is quickly trying to make someone feel better, it eliminates the opportunity to really connect and listen and figure out what is going on. Mallick agrees: “it ruins the psychological trust and safety we had in the workplace.”

The workplace should foster a sense of belonging, which means showing up as your whole self, even if you’re having a bad day.

“Toxic positivity ruins how we listen. We need to listen with more empathy so we don’t glaze over their sadness.”
Anne Moss Rogers, a mental health and suicide prevention speaker.

“You want to create an environment where everyone can bring their true selves to work,” said Mallick. “When I can do that, the sky’s the limit for myself and the company. But if I’m constantly doubting myself, my surroundings, and interactions with my boss and colleagues, I’m going to bring less of me to work, less of my ideas, passion, and interests — all of the reasons the company hired me.”

It also could lead to leaders missing learning opportunities. If someone is upset about something happening in the workplace, it’s beneficial for the employer to learn why, instead of skipping over it. 

“Otherwise, people leave and we don’t know why,” said Rogers.

How can you prevent toxic positivity in the workplace?

“If you are in a management position and witness toxic positivity happening in your workplace, leading by example is always a great place to start,” said Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, psychiatrist and chief medical officer at LifeStance Health. “Providing an example for others to mirror will make other employees more comfortable with sharing themselves.”

Patel-Dunn suggests managers consider talking about past work experiences that have challenged them and how what they did to channel those emotions at the time. Managers can also help people feel comfortable sharing where they are at so the manager can talk about their experience and find solutions together. 

Leaders can also encourage authenticity to build mutual trust instead of a culture of avoidance. That, along with honesty and openness can lead to a work culture that doesn’t breed toxic positivity. Rogers said you can start simply by asking workers what it is that is bothering them when they are visibly upset. Leaders can also equip workers who feel like they are experiencing toxic positivity on what to do, like pausing the conversation and saying “I’m looking for validation right now.”

It’s also talking with your employees to help them understand that listening is more powerful when someone is going through something. Language should shift from “someone always has it worse than you” to “I can understand why you’re upset about that.”

“We want people to feel their feelings,” said Rogers.