Do you ever feel like your organization’s leaders are trying too hard to pretend that everything’s just fine? Or that companywide memos avoid any topic that can’t be positively spun? Or that uncomfortable conversations are muzzled with warnings like “let’s not dwell on the negative”?
If any of those scenarios feel familiar, you’ve likely suffered toxic positivity.
“Toxic positivity is an excessive and distorted form of positive thinking. It’s putting a positive spin on all experiences, no matter how dire or tragic,” explains clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Burgio-Murphy. “For example, you could be experiencing toxic positivity when a friend or boss minimizes or refuses to acknowledge your negative feelings. Or perhaps they go further and try to spin your dire situation in a positive way, like ‘this is a blessing in disguise’ or ‘all things happen for a reason.'”
Toxic Positivity vs Optimism
Toxic positivity is not optimism, the belief outcomes of events or experiences will generally be good or positive. Optimism doesn’t involve denying unpleasant realities; in fact, optimism is often most evident in how people respond to hardship or adversity.
Toxic positivity in organizations is often seen when leaders avoid sharing or discussing the tough challenges they’re facing. In the Leadership IQ study, “Resistance to Change in Organizations,” we discovered that only 15% of employees believe that their organization always openly shares the challenges facing it. By contrast, 42% say their company never or rarely shares its challenges.
There’s a long-standing belief among many leaders that talking about tough issues scares people and worsens the situation. The reality is quite the opposite. In the study, we found that if an employee believes their company openly shares the challenges facing it, they’re about 10 times more likely to recommend it as a great employer.
It’s not just sharing organizational challenges where toxic positivity appears, however.
In the study, “The State of Leadership Development,” we asked more than 21,000 employees to what extent their leader responded well to hearing about problems. Disturbingly, only 26% of employees say that their leader always responds constructively when employees share their work problems.
The key to developing resilience, optimism, self-efficacy, and a host of other emotional-wellness skills is to acknowledge reality, not to deny, avoid, or dismiss it. Wallowing in misery will, of course, increase negative feelings. But denying misery or tough challenges is even worse.
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To avoid toxic positivity, leaders and companies need to accept that their employees are not clueless. Nor are their people so fragile that they can’t handle reality. In fact, ignoring or dismissing reality is one of the fastest ways to undermine employees’ trust in leadership. Instead, leaders need to acknowledge reality and then focus their efforts on developing and explaining plans to make that reality better.
When leaders avoid sharing tough challenges or use phrases like, “everything happens for a reason” or “this is a blessing in disguise,” not only are they denying reality, they’re also evidencing a lack of empathy.
Of course, people are hurting and burned out right now. Denying that pain is not going to magically dissipate it. The best leaders will accept and acknowledge reality and then work hard to improve it; that’s how leaders manifest optimism and resilience.
I would encourage you to add a few questions to your next employee-engagement survey to assess whether your company is suffering from toxic positivity. Consider using questions that ask people to rate statements like, “My leader responds constructively when I share my work problems,” and “This organization openly shares the challenges facing it.”
Both of these questions surface the extent to which leaders and the organization are comfortable acknowledging reality. And if you want to avoid becoming an organization where reality is a verboten topic and toxic positivity rules, you’ll want to ensure that your people are confident that you’re in touch with their challenges.