Positivity All Day Long; Too Much of a Good Thing?

By Lydia Freeman, Senior HR Consultant, Principle HR LLC

Eliminating negativity from the workplace has been a precedent for leaders to live by for, well, at least this century and most likely last century too.  As an HR professional, I’ve done many consultations with businesses to improve morale and increase positivity among employees.  Positive employees are engaged and thus increase productivity, create a high loyalty to the company and thus decrease turnover, generate a pleasant working environment and thus lower absenteeism.  In general, it is in every way good for an organization to have a workforce that is positive. This is what business leaders strive for, however can positivity turn into something toxic?  What happens when leaders reject anyone and anything that is remotely negative, even in a constructive way?  Toxic positivity becomes part of the company culture.

What is Toxic Positivity?

Recently, Konstantin Lukin, Ph.D. published an article in Psychology Today regarding toxic positivity.  Stating that “toxic positivity” refers to the concept that keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life.  Rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions. Dr. Lukin discusses the affects of this in our everyday lives.  In the article he states that “when you deny or avoid unpleasant emotions, you make them bigger.”  This type of behavior could lead employees to ignore or gloss over problems in the workplace that need to be addressed. 

Impact of Toxic Positivity

According to Jillian Levy, CHHC, senior writer for DrAxe.com, processing negative feelings is equally as important for growth and well-being as feeling the good ones.  This is how we problem solve, or collaborate with team members.  Being afraid to voice concerns that may be perceived as negative stifles the growth of the team.  It may also promote team members to turn a blind eye to important issues that can fester into critical, costly matters. Over time teams become silent on any situations that are not positive in nature.  Once the team loses the ability to challenge each other, have healthy discussions, and problem solve, they lose the ability to move the company forward. Without this type of discussion, teams and meetings become meaningless time wasters. 

Author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni, discusses the use of vulnerability in team members as a means to build relationships within the team and create trust within the team.  Toxic positivity creates shallow relationships, where co-workers and teams are unable to discuss mistakes, limitations, or shortcomings.  They may hide mistakes or blame someone or something for the mistake to avoid any negative light on themselves.  Teams become split, unable to function productively, and employees may feel alienated, affecting the employees’ engagement.   When leaders are able to show genuine vulnerability they set an example for team members to feel more comfortable with their own vulnerabilities.  Establishing that the organization isn’t looking for perfection, they are looking for solutions.

Forcing a positive outlook when there are unresolved issues causes individual employees to learn how to manage these feelings. Employees have undue stress due to the helplessness of not being able to bring up a negative issue and resolve it.  They may not only disengage, they may become depressed and/or have physical symptoms due to the stressful situations at work.  Turnover may increase in employees who give up trying to work around the system.

Eliminating Toxic Positivity

By accepting and discussing the negative and looking for positive answers in a comfortable, healthy setting, the workplace can be positive.  We enable employees and teams to discuss hard issues and learn how to productively solve them.  Not everyone will agree, and sometimes discussions can be passionate, however they should not be hateful or rude.  Stick to the issue, give others the opportunity to speak about their ideas and solutions without interruptions, allow for non-judgmental discussions, and remember that employees who are truly positive are ones who will engage and support the organization.  They will have loyalty to the team, leaders, and the company.