The Concept of Toxic Positivity For Leaders: Exploring Its Definition and Implications

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The concept of toxic positivity is becoming increasingly prominent in the professional world. This phenomenon often shows up in the guise of relentless optimism that ignores or suppresses genuine emotions. While positivity is typically seen as a desirable trait, especially in leadership, there’s a line where it can become destructive. 

Understanding toxic positivity, its potential damage to staff, and how to avoid it is essential for any leader striving to create a genuine and supportive work environment. Grow and develop as a leader by understanding how your actions, no matter how well-intentioned, can hurt those who work for you.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Toxic positivity refers to an over-emphasis on positive thinking to the extent that it ignores or invalidates genuine feelings of sadness, stress, or frustration. In leadership, it manifests as the refusal to acknowledge or address the challenges faced by the team. 

Rather than allowing for real, sometimes uncomfortable emotions, a leader practicing toxic positivity will insist on framing everything in a positive light. Oftentimes, leaders do this because that’s what they personally do to cope with negative feelings. Instead of confronting it, it’s sidestepped entirely.

Why is it so Detrimental?

Ignoring or suppressing emotions doesn’t make them disappear; it merely pushes them below the surface. For staff, this practice can lead to feelings of disconnection, alienation, or even resentment. Employees will find it hard to trust a leader who doesn’t allow them to express real concerns or issues. 

In turn, staff may feel compelled to hide their true feelings, leading to stress and potential burnout. Without honest feedback and an understanding of the challenges, there’s no room for growth or improvement within the team.  The advantage of negative emotions is they let people cope with natural feelings of failure. Without that experience, failure becomes a monster, not a learning experience.

Examples of Toxic Positivity

Let’s examine real-world scenarios that highlight toxic positivity. Think back on how you treat your employees and note if you’ve done any of these, whether intentionally or otherwise.

Feigning Ignorance

A project is falling behind schedule. Rather than addressing the issue, the manager insists everything is fine and discourages any negative talk.  Alternatively, a team member is going through personal struggles, and the manager demands that they put on a happy face at the office, invalidating their real feelings.

Emotions and concerns are not something that bends to the leader’s will. When a leader can’t even trust their peers to do what needs to be done in a crisis, then they aren’t being good leaders. This is one of the most common ways that toxic positivity manifests, as a passive-aggressive way to avoid a problem.

Backhanded Compliments

When an employee is underperforming, a boss might say something to the tune of “Wow, this person’s such a hard worker!”. There is no case where saying that to an underperformer is a good thing. If they know they are an underperformer, they will feel patronized. On the other hand, if an underperformer is unaware of their faults, then they won’t even know they’re a detriment to the team.

No advice was given to improve the team member in either scenario, only that they keep doing what they are doing. There is also the petty sort of backhanded compliments, the type that hides an insult beneath its seemingly positive nature. Comments to plus-sized women such as “You look so healthy!” are a good example of this. It implies their “healthiness”  is the only notable thing about their appearance. 

Comparing Circumstances

There’s an old adage that goes along the lines of “Appreciate what you have because someone else has it worse off than you do”. While it’s in the spirit of positivity, there are many scenarios where it comes off as incredibly insensitive. While it’s important to appreciate what you have, comparing it to someone worse off is callous.

For example, an employee recently lost a loved one.  The last thing you want to say is something like “At least you still have other loved ones. Some people don’t even have that”. This is not something that will make them feel better. It may even make them feel guilty for feeling sad when they have it “better” than someone else. Never let that feeling take hold in the workplace.

Final Thoughts

Toxic positivity is a subtle yet potentially harmful force in leadership. Its effects on staff can be profound, leading to disconnection, mistrust, and a lack of growth. Recognizing and avoiding toxic positivity, embracing authenticity, and encouraging open communication is critical for any leader. 

Open communication is the antidote to toxic positivity. A leader must encourage honest and clear dialogue, where all thoughts and feelings are welcome. By fostering a culture of open communication, you create a workplace where employees feel heard and valued. This approach leads to stronger relationships, better problem-solving, and a more engaged and resilient team.