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Toxic positivity: When optimism goes too far


Pressuring people to ‘think positive’ can backfire.

This month, we’ve been focusing on the importance of optimism in leadership. I shared how it is one of the key characteristics of accountable leaders. You can’t lead people towards a better future if you don’t believe that a better future is possible. But even optimism can be a bad thing if it goes too far.

When optimism starts to feel compulsory, it can turn into toxic positivity. Basically, toxic positivity is a kind of relentless pressure to think positive, to look on the bright side, and to count your blessings.

Many of us encountered toxic positivity during the pandemic. When we struggled to work from home while supervising our kids’ remote learning, some people said “At least you have a job!” When we mourned lost time with family or canceled celebrations, some people said, “It’s better than losing a loved one!”

Looking on the bright side can be adaptive. But if people feel pressured to only focus on the positive, or feel that they can’t express their sadness, anxiety, or anger, they get frustrated. They feel disconnected from the people around them. They start to feel that their true feelings—their true selves—aren’t welcome.


Acceptance is better for your mental health than denial.

The Buddhist tradition teaches that suffering is greatly increased by the ‘second arrow.’ The first arrow is the natural suffering that everyone experiences in life—worry, grief, frustration. The second arrow is self-judgment. If you tell yourself, “I shouldn’t be so upset about this,” or “I should be able to cope,” it’s like getting shot with an arrow and then immediately getting shot with a second one.

Research confirms this ancient wisdom. Studies have shown that people who accept their negative emotions without judging them end up happier in the long run.

Whether you shoot that second arrow yourself, and judge yourself internally for having a natural human reaction to stress, or someone shoots that second arrow at you, by insisting that you shouldn’t be upset or pressuring you to be positive about a difficult situation, the result is the

same: You suffer more. You feel disconnected from friends, family, or coworkers who might otherwise help you cope. You end up feeling more negative emotions in the long run.


Toxic positivity at work can stifle creativity.

People need to feel safe and comfortable in order to do their best work. Research has found that, for example, sales teams with high levels of psychological safety beat their goals by 19%, while those who did not feel psychologically safe missed their goals.

Other studies have shown that when people feel like they can’t express negative emotions, they end up feeling worse. So if your team feels like they can’t express their fears about the future, or can’t share that they’re feeling overworked and close to burnout, they won’t feel psychologically safe. They’ll end up feeling worse, and likely won’t do their best work.


Embrace alternatives to toxic positivity.

Experts say that one alternative to relentless positivity is something called “tragic optimism.” The idea is to focus on finding meaning in your struggles, rather than denying they exist. The people who get through tough times the best tend to say things like, “I can face and adapt to whatever happens,” not “I’m fine! It could be worse!”

As a leader, you can bring this spirit of realistic optimism to your team by:

  • Listening to your team and validating their feelings, even if what they have to say is negative. Use your active listening skills, and paraphrase and mirror what you hear to show that you understand.
  • Being as transparent as possible. You may not be able to share all the data that goes into the company’s decisions, but share what you can to help your people understand where the team stands now and what some of the potential paths are for the future.
  • Gently shifting people towards solutions. Once you’ve opened up a dialogue with your team, you can start to help them think about how you as a team might move through a tough situation.

Say your team is struggling with an increased workload, but the budget doesn’t allow you to hire anyone right now. Your approach might be to meet with individuals on the team and listen to their concerns. You’d also explain the budget situation and talk through the timetable for revisiting the budget and what would need to happen to get an increase. Then, you’d strategize as a team about how you can handle the workload—is there any busy-work or low-priority work that can be postponed? Could you cut the number of required meetings to give people some time back in their day?

Instead of pressuring everyone to just stay positive, your goal is to acknowledge and accept the team’s negative feelings—and then move through them.


Has your positivity turned toxic?


About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

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