5-second summary
  • Positivity is encouraged and rewarded – understandably so, since it’s proven to improve outcomes and satisfaction. However, there’s a fine line between looking on the bright side (which is healthy) and repressing the dark side (which is toxic). 
  • Toxic positivity is an extreme form of optimism. It involves dismissing or invalidating negative emotions, reactions, or experiences and replacing them with false reassurances.
  • Though it seems counterintuitive, the more effective way to feel better and build healthier, stronger teams is to face the negativity head-on and work through it. To combat toxic positivity at work, try accepting all feelings (not just the positive ones), validating experiences, sympathizing before solving, and giving feedback when you feel it.

Whether you’ve heard of toxic positivity or you’re looking at the phrase thinking, “Those two words don’t go together,” you’ve likely experienced or witnessed it at home and at work – perhaps without even knowing it. The term is relatively new, but it represents a familiar concept that is quite common in real life and in the media. 

Think of Ted Lasso, the beloved fictional coach and leader from the eponymous show who’s known as a “positivity icon.” Ted is lauded for his optimistic and inspirational approach. However, he unintentionally glosses over his team’s and his own struggles, leading to conflict with others and worsening his anxiety. 

Ted Lasso: “positivity icon” or toxic positivity culprit?

There’s no doubt that keeping a positive attitude is beneficial. And because it’s been proven to improve individual health and professional performance, positivity is especially encouraged and rewarded in the workplace. However, there’s a fine line between looking on the bright side (which is healthy) and repressing the dark side (which is toxic). As Ted learns first hand throughout the show – and as you will hopefully experience – the more effective way to help people feel and do their best is to create a safe space to feel and do their worst

What is toxic positivity?

What can leaders learn from pop culture’s most beloved coaches?

Toxic positivity involves dismissing or invalidating negative emotions, reactions, or experiences and replacing them with false reassurances. Think of phrases like:

It could be worse!

Everything happens for a reason.

Look on the bright side.

It will be ok!

At least…

Although these platitudes usually come from a good place, they often fall flat or even make things worse. That’s when the balance tips from “positive” to “toxic.”

Most people mean well and don’t even realize when they’re being toxically positive. After all, toxic positivity stems from the conditioning many of us experience throughout childhood and adulthood. People around us and the media tell us to “put on a happy face,” “never let them see you sweat,” “think positive,” “good vibes only,” and a host of other rosy-yet-risky messages.

The goal of these saccharine-sweet statements is usually to help people feel better and/or make those around them more comfortable. Like puppies who get treats for being good, we’re rewarded for this type of positivity in the form of praise (e.g., a friend saying, “You’re always so optimistic!” or a boss noting your positive attitude in a performance review), creating a cycle that can turn toxic.

Looking at this all-too-common feedback loop, it’s no wonder toxic positivity is running rampant. In a Science of People survey, almost 68% of respondents said they had experienced toxic positivity from someone in recent weeks, and more than 75% admitted they “ignore their own emotions in favor of being happy.”

It’s especially common in the workplace, where companies often push positive attitudes and build cultures around “professionalism” – sometimes at the expense of empathy and authenticity. (Fans of the cult-classic movie Office Space will never forget Joanna battling her manager over “flair” or Peter’s co-worker mocking his frustration with “Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays.”) 

Historically, in order to be perceived as positive and professional in the workplace, most people felt like they had to leave their real feelings at the door. Fortunately, the tides are slowly turning (which we wholeheartedly support!). But there’s long way to go.  

Until then, we need to better understand why such a common, well-intentioned practice can be so toxic and work toward embracing a more effective approach. 

toxic positivity vs. optimism

Optimism is hopefulness and confidence about the future or a successful outcome. Toxic positivity is an extreme form of optimism. While optimistic people can still acknowledge negativity, toxic positivity disregards it.

The perils of toxic positivity in the workplace

Ignoring negativity doesn’t make it go away. It can actually make the feelings and impacts even worse, damaging relationships with ourselves and those around us.

Harmful impacts of toxic positivity at work
  • Creates feelings of guilt and shame 
  • Discourages others from sharing their own feelings
  • Causes negative emotions to show up in other ways, like stress, anxiety, depression, nausea, fatigue, sleep and digestive problems, and more
  • Hinders psychological safety and connection
What does psychological safety mean, anyway?

Building psychological safety (a shared belief held by members of a group that the environment is a safe space to take risks) is particularly important because it’s a key ingredient for high-performing teams. When there is psychological safety at work, team members feel they can safely take calculated risks (such as speaking up about mistakes and potential problems, suggesting a new idea, or expressing true feelings) without fear of repercussions. This type of environment fosters growth and innovation. And yet, toxic positivity is a direct competitor to psychological safety.

But just as toxic positivity develops out of conditioning, it can be minimized by building awareness and deconditioning. When we stop gaslighting ourselves and others, we can get to the real good vibes while building stronger, higher-performing teams. 

what about gaslighting?

Toxic positivity can take the form of gaslighting, which happens when someone or something causes us to question our own reality. For instance, a person making you feel like you’re overreacting or trying to convince you that something that hurt you badly is “no big deal” are both examples of gaslighting. 

How to recognize and respond to toxic positivity at work

Most people have good intentions, but their actions still cause unexpected impacts. This is typically what happens with toxic positivity: We’re trying to help, but it actually hurts.

So how do you stay optimistic without wading into toxic positivity? Here’s how to find the balance and a few techniques to try with yourself or others so you can turn good intentions into good impacts. 

Accept all feelings, not just the positive ones

Unlike what many of us have been taught, there are no right, wrong, good, or bad feelings. We’re humans, and all emotions are part of the human experience. When we rush toward unmitigated positivity, we may bulldoze over real (and, yes, sometimes painful) experiences. 

It might seem like acknowledging and sitting with negative feelings would only make them worse. However, being empathetic, compassionate, and gentle when you or someone around you is struggling helps work through those feelings faster than glossing over or repressing them. 

For instance, let’s say you missed a 5:00 p.m. deadline on a really important task at work. It ended up taking longer than you expected, and you ran out of time. You felt bad, let your leader know the current status, and worked late to deliver it the next morning. 

If you were being toxically positive, you would immediately push past the disappointment in an effort to feel better. In a more accepting and productive approach, you would acknowledge what happened (including the feelings that followed), learn from it, and then move on. 

What toxic positivity sounds like

Self-talk: “Ugh, why do you STILL feel bad about missing that deadline? There’s nothing you can do about it now, and at least you delivered the next day!”

What acceptance sounds like

Self-talk: “I feel like I let my team down when I missed that deadline. No one’s perfect though, and I know they were thankful I delivered the next day. I’ll start earlier next time.”

Validate the experience

According to psychologist Marsha Linehan, validation means communicating to someone that “her responses make sense and are understandable within her current life context or situation.” 

Often, our first instinct when someone is being hard on themselves is to try to convince them otherwise. However, studies have shown that validation heals and strengthens people, including ourselves. Even if you don’t agree with someone, validating their feelings simply lets them know it’s okay to feel that way – not that you think they’re right.

Labeling emotions also helps us better understand and manage them. As Tony Schwartz said in The New York Times, “Emotions are just a form of energy, forever seeking expression…By naming them out loud, we are effectively taking responsibility for them, making it less likely that they will spill out at the expense of others over the course of a day.”

Let’s say two of your co-workers are chatting at lunch about annual reviews. The company hasn’t been doing well, and with rumors swirling about potential layoffs, there’s uncertainty about job security. One colleague at the table was hoping to get a promotion during their review, but that didn’t happen, and she’s disappointed. To support her, her co-workers could either try to get her to look on the bright side right away, or empathize with her feelings first.   

What toxic positivity sounds like

Co-worker 1: “I’m so bummed. I just had my annual review and didn’t get the promotion.”

Co-worker 2: “I know, but look on the bright side: at least you have a job!”

What validation and labeling emotions sounds like

Co-worker 1: “I’m so bummed. I just had my annual review and didn’t get the promotion.”

Co-worker 2: “I’m so sorry. I know how hard you’ve been working, and that must be really disappointing.”

Practice sympathy before solution

When confronted with complaints or negativity, our natural instinct is usually to try to make the person or ourselves feel better as quickly as possible. But unless someone is asking for an opinion or help solving a problem, our role is to listen and empathize first. 

A lot of times, people just want to vent and feel heard. Berkeley’s Jill Suttie, Psy.D., writes, “Sharing our emotions reduces our stress while making us feel closer to others we share with and providing a sense of belonging. When we open up our inner selves and people respond with sympathy, we feel seen, understood, and supported.” (There’s that psychological safety again!)

So next time you find yourself going full steam ahead toward solutions or a colleague is getting something off their chest, try taking a beat to listen before jumping into problem-solving mode. 

For example, if you’re a leader, you’re bound to encounter an overwhelmed employee every now and again, like when there’s simply too much work and not enough time to do it. When that happens, it can be hard to know how to support the team member without making them feel bad or inadequate. By noticing their feelings and creating a safe space to ask for or accept help, you can build a culture of trust and a stronger team.  

What toxic positivity sounds like

Leader to employee: “I know you have a lot on your plate. I never give you more than you can handle. You got this!”

What sympathy before solutions sounds like

Leader to employee: “I know you have a lot on your plate, and it seems like you’re feeling overwhelmed. Do you want to talk about ways to help lighten the load?”

When you feel it, give feedback

6 ways to set and maintain boundaries at work

What if you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s toxic positivity at work? Whitney Goodman, a licensed therapist and author of Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed With Being Happy, says you have a few options

If the person is someone you don’t have a close relationship with, it’s ok to respond to their over-the-top positivity with something simple like, “Okay, thanks.” However, if you want to help them better understand and support you, Goodman suggests acknowledging that they’re trying to be helpful, explaining how what they said affects you, and suggesting what they can do instead.

Here’s what that might look like in a situation where you’re venting to a colleague (let’s call her Chelsea) about a stakeholder (who we’ll Joe) after he critiqued your work via email and copied your boss. Chelsea is trying to make you feel better, but it comes across as toxic positivity and doesn’t work. 

What toxic positivity sounds like

You: “Joe sent all these edits back to me, and he copied my manager! Why is he trying to make me look bad?”  

Chelsea: “Hey, it’s ok! I’m sure your manager knows you’re doing a good job. Forget about Joe.”

You: “Yeah, you’re right. Thanks.”

What giving feedback looks like

You: “Joe sent all these edits back to me, and he copied my manager! Why is he trying to make me look bad?”  

Chelsea: “Hey, it’s ok! I’m sure your manager knows you’re doing a good job. Forget about Joe.”

You: “I know you’re trying to be helpful. This is so frustrating though. Can you help me write a good response to Joe so my manager sees that I’m handling it?”

Your whole self at work

Maybe the cheery Chelseas and inspirational-but-sometimes-toxic Ted Lassos of the world have done us all a disservice. That’s not to say there isn’t power in positivity. But the only way to become truly happy is to accept and manage our emotions when we feel anything but. 

Let’s embrace our whole selves and work as a resilient team through tough times. Because when we validate and overcome the struggles instead of casting them aside, we can create stronger connections, perform better, and get to the good vibes – real good vibes – faster. 

Toxic positivity at work: how to spot it and squash it