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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

What Toxic Positivity Looks Like at Work—and How to Deal With It

an employee giving side-eye to two of her coworkers who are smiling and laughing next to her at their workstation
Bailey Zelena; Jon Feingersh Photography Inc/Getty Images

We’ve all crossed paths with a coworker who is relentlessly upbeat. You or someone else will open up and they’ll say something like, “We should be grateful to have jobs,” or, “Everything happens for a reason,” as if to cut through the tension. But it never quite lands. And it certainly doesn’t make you feel better.

If this sounds familiar, then you’ve experienced toxic positivity. Here’s what you need to know about why positivity can become toxic, and how to deal with it when it happens.

What is toxic positivity?

Toxic positivity is the idea that people should have a positive mindset no matter what they’re going through. It’s optimism taken to such an extreme that it dismisses and even rejects any negative feelings. 

When you’re optimistic, you’re “consciously deciding to work for a better outcome,” says Moses Nalocca, a business and performance coach. On the other hand, toxic positivity is about believing and acting like “nothing has happened, it’s all good, this did not exist, the world is all pink and beautiful.” 

It can happen to everyone—people do it to others and even themselves. In a Science of People survey, 67.8% of respondents said they’ve experienced toxic positivity from someone in the past week. More than 75% of respondents also admitted that they “ignore their own emotions in favor of being happy.”

Looking at the bright side of things can be a healthy way to approach life’s challenges. But while well-intentioned, a constant insistence on “being positive” can actually do more harm than good.

“Toxic positivity occurs when positive thinking or platitudes are used in a way that denies the reality of emotions perceived as negative,” says Dr. Heather Myers, an organizational psychologist at Paradox. When we’re quick to brush off situations or discussions that make us feel uncomfortable, it can actually “shut down conversation and encourage the suppression of any negative emotions.” 

This mindset can make it harder to identify and address concerns as people feel forced to bottle up what’s bothering them and maintain a façade of positive vibes. Toxic positivity “gets in the way of one’s judgment and decision-making,” says Dr. John Philbin, founder of Spectacular at Work, a leadership coaching organization. “It causes people to take an unrealistically positive point of view instead of recognizing the need to take action when they are in negative situations.”

Signs that there’s toxic positivity in your workplace

You can experience toxic positivity anywhere, but work is one of the places where you’re likely to encounter it most often. “Many corporate cultures make it mandatory to be positive and if you’re not, you are the problem,” Nalocca says. 

Considering the average human spends about a third of their lifetime at work, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to remain positive 100% of the time. 

Do you notice such impossible standards at your company? Here are some signs and examples of how people may be using toxic positivity to push through problems at work.

  • Employees are hesitant to bring up complaints because they fear their manager will dismiss their struggles as “not a big deal.” When this happens, employees are exhausted and burned out because any concerns are swept under the carpet.
  • Coworkers encourage each other to keep their heads down and work hard, even when some are struggling. Managers insist that juggling unrealistic workloads and sticking to impossible timelines is a matter of working hard enough and believing you can achieve anything you set your mind to.
  • Being cheerful is encouraged, and acknowledging negative feelings is frowned upon. So employees rarely speak up in meetings as no one is comfortable saying anything that may be perceived as negative.

Why is toxic positivity harmful?

Positivity can turn toxic if you start suppressing negative emotions to maintain an upbeat attitude, which can hurt your psychological and physical health and take a toll on your relationships. Here’s how.

1. You end up ignoring problems instead of solving them.

“When someone displays toxic positivity, they are avoiding a difficult situation by distorting reality to minimize discomfort,” says Caitlin Collins, an organizational psychologist at Betterworks. In other words, it’s easier to dismiss problems than face a difficult conversation and find solutions. But disregarding people’s concerns makes it harder to identify and resolve problems head-on.

It’s not always malicious. It’s easy to let a toxic positive remark slip in busy work environments where productivity is prized over anything else.

2. It can make you or others feel shame and isolation. 

Toxic positivity not only prevents people from seeing and solving problems, but it can also make them feel like something’s wrong with them.“When people are unable to express any criticism or strong emotion,” Myers says, “they can enter a shame spiral where they feel bad about what they are feeling and guilty that they cannot seem to stop these feelings by thinking positively.” And feeling bad about feeling bad can turn into a cycle of stress that makes it increasingly difficult to bounce back.

3. It stifles trust, creativity, and productivity. 

Google’s Project Aristotle, which studied the secret of effective teams, revealed that a recurring characteristic of high-performing teams was a sense of psychological safety among its members. Toxic positivity makes this difficult, if not impossible, to attain, Myers points out.

“Toxic positivity creates a psychologically unsafe environment where bringing up concerns is likely perceived as not being a team player or introducing ‘negative vibes,’” she says. “This will lead to poor decision-making as valid concerns cannot be raised and addressed appropriately.”

4. You eventually burn out. 

If you have no room to voice the need for change, you’re forced to dismiss your struggles and put your head down to power through your problems. But letting negative feelings pile up can cause burnout and long-term damage to mental health.

Examples of positive phrases that are actually toxic (and what to say instead)

Now you know why toxic positivity is harmful, but how do you recognize when you or others at your workplace are showing up this way? Here are a few common phrases that fall into the toxic trap—and how you can rephrase them to steer clear: 

  • “It could be worse.” Bad circumstances aren’t a competition. Instead of comparing the “worseness” of struggles, Philbin recommends saying, “That’s not what you were hoping for, is there a way I can support you now?” to open the opportunity for conversation and allow the person to seek help.
  • “There’s always a silver lining—you just have to look for it.” Finding the positive in a negative situation can help, but completely dismissing someone’s struggles and the need for action can be damaging. Amy Feind Reeves, a career coach and founder of JobCoachAmy, suggests saying, “This is a blow and I understand that you will need to take some time to get used to your new situation,” or, “I understand why that makes you upset.”
  • “It’ll all work out in the end.” “Toxic positivity weakens people’s judgment because they develop an unrealistic expectation that everything will work out even when things are not going to work out,” Philbin says. Instead, Louis Carter, CEO of Most Loved Workplace and author of multiple executive coaching books, suggests saying, “This must be a tough time. Let’s talk about ways we can get through this in the best way possible.”
  • “Try harder, you’ll get there.” There are a lot of factors beyond hard work that create success, so blanket statements like this one don’t really help. Instead, Myers recommends saying something like, “What would you need to get that done?” or, “Is there another goal that is more achievable/helpful?”

How to avoid and deal with toxic positivity at work

Once you’ve recognized toxic positivity within yourself and others, here are some steps you can take:

1. Speak up and be open up about your struggles.

It’s tempting to shut down and go with the flow to avoid an uncomfortable conversation, but that’s how toxic positivity can creep in. If you don’t feel heard at work, don’t ignore it, Collins says. Instead, make it a habit to check in with yourself and voice your feelings.

“Don’t let it slide and hope the problem takes care of itself,” Collins says. “Be proactive and reinitiate the conversation; use assertive statements like, ‘We need to acknowledge the problem,’ or, ‘I’m struggling right now and need your help.’”

2. Call it out when you see others doing it.

It’s hard to address toxic positivity if people don’t even know they’re doing something harmful. That’s why Reeves recommends “making people aware that they may unknowingly be creating unsafe work environments.” You can do this by calmly explaining why their remarks are not helpful. You might say something like: “I appreciate your encouragement to stay positive, but it would help me more if we could take a minute to address the problem.”

3. Practice empathy.

Feeling seen and heard makes a huge difference, so aim to understand what others are saying and empathize with their situation instead of jumping right into giving them advice or opinions.

“Acknowledge their feelings and ask for more understanding,” says Carter, who suggests saying something like, “‘This must feel [name or describe whatever emotion they are going through]. Tell me about it…’”

It’s sometimes tempting to shut down an uncomfortable conversation if you don’t share the same perspective. But Myers points out that you don’t have to agree or feel the same way in order to acknowledge what they’re feeling. Instead, you can try something like, “I can see that you’re feeling upset right now,” or “I understand why you might feel that way.”

4. Create a safe space for questions and concerns.

As a manager or leader, you can go a step further and create a safe space for employees and colleagues to ask questions and share their thoughts and ideas without worrying about being dismissed, Myers says.

This can be as simple as sharing your own struggles to show employees that it’s OK to discuss difficult topics and that there’s a space for them to voice any of their concerns.

If possible, have dedicated channels—like team meetings, online forms, shared documents, or a Slack channel—to collect and address employee concerns so no one has to bury their feelings in fear of judgment or retaliation.

5. Share additional resources.

Consider using and offering external resources to your colleagues, direct reports, or even team leaders who might be new to the concept of toxic positivity. These could be books, videos, articles (like this one!), or talks on the topic that give everyone the tools they need to actually tackle the problems at hand in a healthy manner.

Myers recommends reading Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy by licensed psychotherapist Whitney Goodman. If you’re into listening on the go, Brené Brown has a conversation with the psychologist Dr. Susan David on the “The Dangers of Toxic Positivity” in a two-part episode of her podcast, Dare to Lead. You can also find plenty of free informative videos on YouTube like this one by Dr. Allison Niebes-Davis, a clinical psychologist and founder of Dr. Allison and Associates.

And remember, you don’t have to be an expert in managing toxic positivity—and you don’t have to fix it all by yourself.

Check out our full “toxic aware” hub here.