Workplace Culture

Is Toxic Positivity Affecting the Health of Your Workplace?

Post Feature Image

When I was in my twenties, I visited the so-called “happiest place on earth”: Disneyland. But when I first set foot in the corporatocratic theme park, something just felt off.

I mean, it was kind of cool…great rides (I lost my wallet inside Space Mountain, but that’s another story), lots of well-rehearsed shows, and earworm songs that I still find myself humming decades later, sometimes against my will. But everyone that worked there, including the human-sized mice, were always smiling. They were preternaturally happy, and it kind of gave me the willies.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

I didn’t know it then, but what was bothering me were some visible symptoms of toxic positivity in the workplace. Simply understood, toxic positivity is the insistence that only positive feelings are acceptable and that negative feelings need to be denied. It’s be positive taken too far.

Toxic positivity can show up in common situations like interacting with customers, working with colleagues, or receiving challenging feedback from a manager, which are all situations where someone might experience negative emotions. Being encouraged to push these emotions down – to only focus on the good things that might come up or what you can learn from the situation – can result in an environment where employees feel they must maintain a state of false optimism, even in circumstances that might naturally produce negative emotions.

Simply understood, toxic positivity is the insistence that only positive feelings are acceptable and that negative feelings need to be denied.

How Can Toxic Positivity Affect Our Workplace?

While looking on the bright side, reframing our thinking, and generating “good vibes only” can be helpful, they aren’t always the best ways to process challenges. As humans, we’re complex beings with an equally complex range of emotions. Being told that we need to be enthusiastic and upbeat no matter how dire the circumstances can lead to a range of issues including mental health concerns, getting sick more frequently, lack of sleep and headaches, intestinal issues, and autoimmune disorders.

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, author of It’s Not Always Depression, describes our emotions as having energy that pushes upward for expression. We can often tamp them down, but to do so, our minds and bodies must use unhealthy tactics like holding our breath or constricting our muscles. It’s not the way we’re hard wired, and it’s exhausting to sustain. It can lead to frustration, disengagement, and burnout for employees, and contribute to workplaces where no one wants to point out mistakes and dangers, which can cause oversights for leaders and managers.

At ACHIEVE, we’re motivated by the belief that everyone deserves to like where they work. It’s easy to imagine that might mean workplaces where everyone is positive and upbeat all the time. But it doesn’t. It means workplaces that make room for whole human beings – people with the natural range of emotions that arise from the variety of experiences we might encounter both on the job and in the rest of life.

What can we do as leaders and managers to foster this kind of environment, and what can we do as employees to contribute to it?

3 steps to a More Positive and Emotionally Safe Workplace

Step 1: Acknowledge the Power of Emotions

The first step is to educate ourselves about emotions in general. There are two central facts that can get us started:

  • First, emotions are biological forces that are built into us. They happen whether we acknowledge them or not, and thwarting them stresses our bodies and our minds. Ignoring them doesn’t make them go away – it simply makes us more vulnerable to being ruled by them without realizing it. Acknowledging the power of our emotions (positive, negative, or otherwise) is a good place to start.
  • The second fact (and this might sound a bit disconcerting, but stay with me), is that our emotions are not under our conscious control. Biology and anatomy make it clear that we can’t stop our emotions from being triggered because they happen in conjunction with the middle part of our brain, which is not under conscious control. However, once we learn that this is the case and start to develop some skills for working with our emotions, we can begin to name them more accurately, manage them more effectively, and make space for others to do the same.
Step 2: Learn About Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace

The second step is to grow in our understanding of what makes a workplace safer for the natural range of human emotions (another term for this is psychological safety). In Canada, where ACHIEVE is based, we are fortunate to have a national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace, the first of its kind in the world.

In general terms, psychological safety means feeling safe to be yourself, to take interpersonal risks, to speak up (even when it includes open disagreement), and to know that you can surface concerns without fear of negative repercussions or pressure to sugar-coat bad news. It might be self-evident, but this describes a workplace where it’s okay to feel and express a range of emotions – not just positive ones.

Step 3: Encourage Open Communication

The third step is to create a more communicative workplace culture where people are allowed to express their emotions in constructive ways. If a workplace makes constructively talking about issues the norm, even challenging circumstances like giving or receiving negative feedback can become acceptable, as can the emotions that might naturally accompany such an experience.

When we create work environments and build teams that make space for the full range of emotions, we are making workplaces where we can all fully be ourselves, and those are places where we want to stay and bring our best efforts.

In Summary

There are two important features to note when taking these steps. The first is that they are starting points. Making workplaces that are safer and healthier for the whole person takes us deep into the shaping of organizational culture, and that takes diligence, determination, and time. It’s dynamic, complex, and sometimes messy.

The second feature is that when we create work environments and build teams that make space for the full range of emotions, we are making workplaces where we can all fully be ourselves, and those are places where we want to stay and bring our best efforts. Job satisfaction, task outcomes, team cohesion, and employee mental health all benefit. It’s a win for the organization and the real people that comprise it – and that’s better than Disneyland.


Check out more blogs by Tim Plett. For additional FREE resources, visit our resources page. 

Author

Tim Plett

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

To receive notification of a new blog posting, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
© Achieve Centre For Leadership (achievecentre.com)
Interested in using the content of this blog? Learn more here.

Share this:
Keep up to date with ACHIEVE

Receive a free Conflict Resolution Skills E-Manual!
Sign me up to receive info on: