When Positivity Goes Too Far: Understanding Toxic Positivity in Corporate America

With the recent mass layoffs in tech, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about “toxic positivity” and the negative effects that it can have on people.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, toxic positivity refers to the notion of insisting on maintaining an unwaveringly cheerful or optimistic outlook, even when facing adversity or challenging circumstances. It is based on the assumption that being positive is always good and being negative is always bad, regardless of the context or situation.

Toxic positivity can be harmful because it can:

  • Invalidate and suppress authentic emotions and experiences, leading to guilt, shame, or isolation.
  • Prevent people from seeking help or support when they need it, or from offering empathy and compassion to others who are struggling.
  • Create unrealistic expectations and pressure to perform or conform, resulting in burnout, stress, or resentment.
  • Reduce emotional intelligence and resilience, making it harder to cope with challenges and adversity.

Have you ever been told to show up as more upbeat and optimistic for the sake of your team?  Have you ever been coached to smile more to make others feel more comfortable? Have you ever been encouraged to downplay tough messages, as to avoid “bringing the team down?”

While a dose of positivity can of course be helpful at times, toxic positivity can actually be quite harmful. For one, being relentlessly positive can lead to feelings of guilt or shame in individuals who don’t feel that they can measure up to such a standard. Additionally, when people are under significant stress, brushing off their concerns as “no big deal” or telling them to “stay positive” can actually invalidate their experiences and make them feel dismissed or unheard.

Toxic positivity can be especially prevalent and problematic in corporate America, where there is often a culture of competition, productivity, and success. For instance, some companies have been known to create workplace cultures where employees are expected to show up to work each day with a smile on their face and a “can do” attitude, no matter what’s going on in their lives. This kind of culture may make it difficult for employees to ask for help or speak up about their struggles, for fear of being seen as a “downer.”

Another example of toxic positivity in the corporate world might come from managers who seem to continually push the importance of “looking on the bright side” whenever employees express frustration about company changes, reorganizations, or other substantial disruptions. While it’s certainly healthy to remain realistic and not indulge in catastrophic thinking, trying to force an attitude of cheerfulness can actually undermine employee morale and leave them feeling unheard or neglected. This can create a toxic work environment, where employees feel stressed, unhappy, and unfulfilled.

To avoid toxic positivity, it is important to:

  • Be your authentic self through both good and bad times. Model the behaviors for others so they feel safe to do so too.
  • Recognize and acknowledge the full range of human emotions, both positive and negative, as valid and normal.
  • Express and communicate one’s feelings and needs honestly and respectfully, without judgment or shame.
  • Listen and empathize with others who are going through difficulties, without trying to fix or change them. (This one is always the hardest for me.)
  • Cultivate a positive mindset, but not at the expense of reality or authenticity.

Toxic positivity is not the same as healthy optimism or positivity. Healthy optimism or positivity is the ability to see the positive aspects of a situation, while also acknowledging and accepting the negative ones. It is the ability to hope for the best, but also prepare for the worst. It is the ability to cope with adversity, but also celebrate success. It is the ability to be flexible, adaptable, and realistic.

So, while there is nothing wrong with encouraging a positive outlook or good vibes in general, it’s important to remember that there’s a fine line between instilling hope and promoting toxic positivity. Encouraging employees to foster an optimistic mindset should not come at the expense of dismissing or minimizing their concerns or struggles.

“Positive thinking is not about ignoring the negative. It’s about acknowledging it and choosing to focus on what’s constructive instead.” – Simon Sinek

This article was first published on LinkedIn.


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