“Everything will be fine.” “At least you have a job right now.” “Everything happens for a reason.“
If you have ever hit a roadblock in your career, it’s likely you’ve heard these encouraging platitudes. They’re meant to comfort but come off rather empty and inauthentic. That’s because there’s a big difference between offering positive encouragement and forcing positivity.
“Toxic positivity, first and foremost, is when we are actively looking to suppress real, negative emotions,” said organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge. “It’s almost always benevolent in nature. People are looking to do the right thing.“
But humans don’t respond well to this kind of positivity because it’s dismissive of reality. “If somebody is feeling upset and your response is ‘Try to be positive,’ you’re basically saying, ’You’re wrong. You’re wrong for feeling what you’re feeling,’” Gallaher said. “As human beings, we do not respond well to that at all, especially because we’re talking about someone’s subjective experience of the world.“
If toxic positivity festers in the workplace, it can create a culture in which employees can’t share how they feel with those they need to be honest with, and that in turn usually leads them to complain about the situation to everyone else instead.
“That continues to erode trust, and it creates a lot of artificiality in how we are showing up. And it ends up also impacting business results... because now we’re not having healthy conflicts, we’re not making the best decisions we can,” Gallaher said.
Here are five common scenarios in which toxic positivity creeps into work:
1. People tell you to be positive about legitimate concerns.
When a co-worker shares a legitimate worry, telling them to be positive is dismissive. Gallaher gave the example of a client who was stressed about taking on the responsibilities of a fired colleague on top of her regular work. When the client told her leader that she was worried about being set up to fail, the leader told her, “Try to be more positive.”
A more compassionate response would include the manager actually listening to the employee’s concerns with statements like “Tell me more,” or paraphrasing the problem with “It sounds like...” The goal is to make the employee feel heard and validated for feeling what they’re feeling, Gallaher said.
2. Your boss says that “everything will be fine” as the company’s future is grim and uncertain.
If the bottom line is red and layoffs loom, it is not just toxically positive for your boss to insist everything’s fine. This hands-off leadership is also the most common type of incompetent management. One 2010 study said a laissez-faire leader “may avoid decision making, show little concern for goal attainment and seldom involve themselves with their subordinates, even when this is necessary.” The boss who only shows up to offer vague encouragement is doing everyone a disservice.
Instead of making false promises about employees’ futures, managers can be more helpful in times of crises when they are transparent and specific about the actions they are taking to support the team.
“What people really want and respect from their leaders is transparency, honesty and integrity. Saying something like ‘I don’t know what is going to happen, and this situation is obviously less than ideal. It’s not hopeless. This is what the plan is...’ ― I think that type of thing is so appreciated by people who are often left in the dark,” said feminist career coach Cynthia Pong.
If layoffs are truly inevitable, bosses can do better than simply saying, “You’re going to be OK.” They may not be able to guarantee continued employment, but they can at least promise specific actions that will help you be OK, such as reviewing your résumé and offering references.
3. Your employer refuses to acknowledge COVID-19 in their end-of-year reviews.
Pong said you may hear toxic positivity in end-of-year company gatherings or all-hands meetings in which leadership “just glosses over everything bad that happened, like, ‘Yeah, 2020 was tough, but we did amazing.’”
If that’s your company’s overarching message, it’s toxically positive because it refuses to acknowledge the devastating losses COVID-19 has wrought on communities. More than a quarter-million Americans have died of the coronavirus, Johns Hopkins University reports. It’s inhumane to not acknowledge this reality at work.
4. You experience unemployment or any other kind of loss, and colleagues tell you to look on the bright side.
If you’re among the millions of people who lost their job this year, you are not alone. But although the unemployment experience is common, you still have a right to be upset. Toxically positive statements like “Look on the bright side” or “You’re going to be OK” are signaling that it’s not OK for you to be less than happy with your current job circumstance.
“‘But at least you’ve got this’ or ‘Thank goodness it’s not that’ ― that’s all well-intended,” grief psychologist Patrick O’Malley previously told HuffPost, “but it’s invalidating, minimizing to the individual’s story, because typically for many folks, this is loss and fear.”
What is more helpful in this instance is to listen more than talk, and to not assume that your role in the conversation is to fix this person’s unemployment. “Don’t consult unless you’re clearly asked to consult,” O’Malley said.
5. Minor diversity and equity efforts are used to silence ongoing concerns.
Following nationwide demonstrations this year against the police killings of Black people, including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many companies shared words of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and made diversity and equity commitments.
But these efforts can become toxic positivity when a colleague uses the company’s diversity initiatives to downplay or minimize calls for racial justice.
“You can imagine some bosses being like, ‘Hey, at least we’re even doing something now,’ which can be extremely offensive and harmful to somebody who is a person of color or someone who is from a marginalized community in a white-dominant, white supremacist... workplace,” Pong said.
A better reframe would be to acknowledge that the effort “is something, and things are still pretty bad as far as equity or racism, inclusion, exclusion goes,” Pong said.