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Countering Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

You're at work, facing a challenging project or a frustrating client. You're feeling stressed, anxious, and a bit discouraged. You turn to a colleague for support, only to be met platitudes like: "Just stay positive!" and "Everything happens for a reason!"

Welcome to toxic positivity.

In the modern workplace, there's been a growing emphasis on cultivating optimism and maintaining a sunny disposition at all times. And while looking on the bright side can make for a more pleasant work environment, there's a point at which this relentless positivity becomes not just unhelpful, but actually harmful.

Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It's a "good vibes only" approach that leaves no room for human emotions like disappointment, fear, or anger.

In a workplace context, toxic positivity can manifest as a culture in which employees feel pressured to always appear happy, suppress negative emotions, and avoid voicing concerns or critiques.

The problem with toxic positivity is that it denies the full spectrum of human experience and can lead to a range of negative consequences—from decreased engagement and productivity to increased stress and even burnout. When employees feel that they can't express their authentic emotions or raise legitimate issues, they're more likely to tune out, make mistakes, or leave the organization altogether.

So, how can leaders and employees counter toxic positivity and create a workplace culture that allows for genuine emotions and constructive problem-solving? Here are some strategies to consider.

How Leaders Can Counter Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

1. Model vulnerability.

As a leader, you set the tone for your team. If you're always projecting an image of invincibility and unshakeable positivity, your employees will feel pressured to do the same. Instead, show your human side. Share your own struggles and challenges, and admit when you don't have all the answers. This will create a safe space for others to do the same.

2. Validate emotions.

When an employee comes to you with a problem or expresses a difficult emotion, resist the urge to immediately "look on the bright side" or offer a pep talk. Instead, start by acknowledging and validating their experience. Say something like, "That sounds really tough. It's understandable that you're feeling frustrated." This shows that you hear them and accept their emotions as valid.

3. Encourage constructive problem-solving.

After validating emotions, move the conversation towards problem-solving. Ask the employee, "What do you need right now?" or "What would be most helpful in this situation?" This shifts the focus toward meaningful action without dismissing the employee's emotional experience.

4. Create safe spaces for feedback.

Make sure there are regular opportunities for employees to provide honest feedback, whether through anonymous surveys, one-on-one check-ins, or team retrospectives. Emphasize that you value hearing about both the good and the bad, and that raising concerns or suggesting improvements is welcomed and encouraged.

5. Celebrate effort, not just outcomes.

Toxic positivity often manifests as a focus on relentless optimism and constant winning. Counter this by celebrating employees' efforts, progress, and learning, even when the outcomes aren't perfect. This creates a growth mindset and reduces the pressure to always appear successful.

How Individual Contributors Can Protect Themselves

1. Practice self-awareness.

Pay attention to your own emotions and stress levels. If you find yourself suppressing negative feelings or forcing positivity, take a step back. Acknowledge what you're really experiencing, and give yourself permission to feel those emotions without judgment.

2. Set boundaries.

If you're in an environment that demands constant positivity, it's okay to set boundaries. You might say something like, "I appreciate the encouragement, but right now I just need some space to process my frustration." Or, "I know we're all trying to stay optimistic, but I also think it's important to acknowledge the challenges we're facing."

3. Find allies.

Look for coworkers or mentors who seem to have a more balanced approach to positivity and negativity. Connect with them and create a support system where you can share authentic experiences and emotions.

4. Offer constructive feedback.

If you notice toxic positivity patterns in your workplace, consider providing feedback to your manager or HR. Frame it as a concern for overall employee wellbeing and productivity. Suggest alternative approaches, such as those mentioned above for leaders.

5. Practice self-care.

Dealing with toxic positivity can be emotionally draining. Make sure you're taking care of yourself outside of work—through movement, mindfulness, creative expression, therapy and/or coaching, and spending time in supportive community. The more you're able to process and validate your own emotions in a healthy way, the better equipped you'll be to navigate your challenging work environment.

Countering toxic positivity in the workplace requires effort and intentionality from both leaders and individual contributors. By creating a culture that allows for authentic emotions, constructive problem-solving, and a focus on growth and learning, organizations can foster improved resilience, innovation, and wellbeing.

It's not about being negative—it's about being real, and creating space for the full complexity of the human experience in the pursuit of shared goals.


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.


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