Given the benefits of happiness, individuals naturally try to cultivate it in themselves and others. When experiencing difficulties or challenges, they may try to focus on the bright side, remind themselves what they are grateful for, or consider how things could have turned out worse in an attempt to ward of unpleasant feelings and retain a sense of optimism.
In many circumstances, this general approach is healthy and effective. However, it can become counterproductive or problematic. As Psychologist Tania Luna notes:
Positivity can turn toxic when it is used as an attempt to suppress or avoid underlying emotions or to shame people out of their thoughts and feelings.
In other words, when there is an excessive emphasis on feeling or expressing positive emotions or thoughts, even when negative emotions are appropriate or rational, feel-good strategies can become “toxic,” causing negative feelings to fester and intensify.
Just like individuals, organizations often try to encourage or foster positivity in the face of adversity through their leadership style or organizational culture. For example, they may try to instill norms that encourage employees to always consider what is going well or recall how they have recovered from previous hardships.
Of course, this response can be reasonable and helpful. However, when a focus on positivity becomes the sole response to organizational concerns, regardless of how serious or legitimate they are, the strategy is likely to rebound, causing a variety of adverse outcomes for employees and the companies they work for.
By definition, innovation requires recognizing that the old ways of doing things can be improved upon. Unless employees can point out how previous processes or products could be lacking without fear of being judged, innovation can’t occur.
In addition to interfering with the development of new and improved products, toxic positivity can lead workers to hide significant and pressing flaws in their company’s current product line. This can result in costly and even fatal outcomes. For example, due to their culture of concealment, Boeing hid several significant design elements of the 737 MAX-8 from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to avoid additional simulator training for pilots. Within its first year of operation, two MAX-8s crashed. The entire fleet was grounded for two years, costing Boeing $18.4 billion.
Toxic positivity significantly restricts how employees can approach their work, setting rules and boundaries on how they feel about and react to problems. The result is that there is less of a need for workers to engage with their work. Over time, they may detach from their role.
When forced to suppress negative beliefs and emotions, employees may feel invalidated, unheard, or unseen. These attitudes interfere with one’s ability to form positive attitudes towards their organization.
Burnout occurs when individuals experience prolonged workplace stress without reprieve. Many of the leading stress therapies (e.g., mindfulness and mediation) emphasize that noticing and accepting negative thoughts and feelings is an essential step in mitigating their harmful effects. Toxic positivity can exacerbate burnout by encouraging workers not to recognize negative attitudes towards their organizations.
An organizational emphasis on positive vibes is understandable and even rational. Given the connections between happiness, physical health, and resilience, it’s natural for employers to want their workers to be happy. However, since an excessive emphasis on happiness can give rise to so many negative outcomes, one may wonder why toxic positivity is as prevalent as it is.
Some experts speculate that remote work presents unique challenges that employers may feel can best be solved with a focus on positivity. Executive Coach Jacob Ratliff tells MEL magazine that:
[Toxic positivity] shows up in remote teams a lot more because managers feel like they have fewer motivational tactics in their leadership tool belt.
The lack of motivational tactics is compounded by the fact that many organizations are still in survival mode on the heels of the pandemic and feel they cannot accommodate potentially costly institutional changes (e.g., increased health benefits or competitive wages). As Ratcliff notes:
As a manager and leader, it can be really easy to preserve a positive environment at all costs.
It’s also possible that companies are unaware of the risks associated with their good-vibes-only approach. Not knowing it may result in any bad organizational outcomes, they may not perceive any risks.
Trying to be less positive may sound like an obviously wrongheaded approach to leadership and organizational culture. As counterintuitive as it may seem, a willingness to recognize and discuss organization struggles, obstacles, and setbacks may ultimately result in a happier, more engaged workforce. Try utilizing the following steps to combat toxic positivity with a more balanced approach to happiness and hardships.
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