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How Toxic Positivity Can Ruin Your Company Culture

Toxic positivity is triggered by the fear of being rejected by our colleagues. The main casualty is culture – authenticity and trust are replaced by fake behaviors.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 24, 2021

When a well-intentioned, good attitude becomes toxic behavior.

Behind every quest, there’s suffering, too. For Tony Hsieh, pursuing the “Great culture is happiness” motto didn’t come cheap. Zappos’ founder paid a steep price for building an overly positive company. He chased happiness fiercely, but struggled himself.

Over-the-top positivity is like wearing a mask all day. We end up bottling up our emotions just to look good. Being under pressure to conform spirals into anxiety, stress, and even depression.

Being cheerful is not a bad thing – the problem is when it’s the only role people are allowed to play in your organization. Positivity has a dark side. In this article, I’ll discuss how to prevent it from ruining your company culture.

What Is Toxic Positivity?

Zappos' culture was designed on the principle that, to wow customers, its employees should be extremely happy first.

As its website reads, “Great culture is happiness. Great culture leads to employee happiness. The same way a toxic culture leads to unhappiness. Happy employees means higher engagement, profitability, and low turnover.”

Tony Hsieh was Zappos’ cheerleader in chief. The equally introverted and passionately charismatic leader created a culture manifesto that went beyond the online retailer.

With the Downtown Project, Hsieh wanted to transform the Las Vegas downtown community. Although the revitalization was full of good intentions, it was dubbed “the dark side of techtopia.” It bled money thanks to being mismanaged by Hsieh’s family members and drinking buddies.

“There is a danger of happiness as a goal,” one entrepreneur told Vox. “It’s lonely. There’s a pressure to socialize and go out. There’s a pressure to party.”

Toxic positivity means focusing on positive things while ignoring or suppressing negative ones. It affects how we feel, blocking our identity and experiences.

According to Positive Psychology Coach Tallia Deljou, “Toxic positivity refers to when we minimize and neglect the entirety of the human experience when it comes to emotions and what we give ourselves permission to feel.”

In the workplace, toxic positivity is triggered by the fear of being rejected by our colleagues. I observe this often when advising leaders on how to build fearless cultures. Low psychological safety discourages employees from expressing their true feelings.

The main casualty is culture – authenticity and trust are replaced by fake behaviors.

Pushing people to be happy is not only ineffective, but can also backfire. Happiness is appreciating what we have – it’s a personal choice, not something that a company can provide.

Toxic positivity assumes that a positive mindset is the only one worth having. You are either a team cheerleader or the one who drags everyone down.

The Dark Side of Positivity at Work

We usually think that toxic positivity is a problem of tribal workplace cultures. We know that clan-type organizations, such as Southwest, IKEA, or Zappos, promote an over-the-top good vibe. However, toxic positivity also affects aggressive cultures.

In organizations such as Amazon, Netflix, or McKinsey, where people are expected to be A-players all the time, feeling down becomes a flaw.

Positive thinking can drive better outcomes, but not always. Emotions are signals; you can mask the symptom, but not the root problem. Faking positivity can make us more anxious and guilty.

Psychologist Carl Jung said it best, “What you resist not only persists but will grow in size.”

Toxic positivity is looking mainly at our positive emotions and bottling up negative ones. We choose to suppress our true feelings, expressing only those that people want to see. Toxic positivity is feeling bad about feeling bad.

Studies show that emotional suppression – avoiding or denying our emotions – can lead to unhappiness, sadness, and depression. Isolation is another major factor. We can’t admit to our colleagues that we are feeling down – precisely what happened to Tony Hseih.

Seeing emotions as mutually exclusive doesn’t help. It’s okay to feel happy and sad at the same time. Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Derickson explains that, “Most emotions are multi-layered. We can feel grief, sadness, and relief at the same time.”

Spending too much time on the positive is bad for your team. Betting on a positive mindset reduces accountability, amplifies our blind spots, and lowers the bar. Instead of feeling motivated to put in the work, we rely on magical thinking to achieve our goals.

Being overconfident can leave you unprepared at work. That’s the other problem with toxic positivity: attaining our goals requires effort, not just a positive mindset.

The Workplace Antidote to Toxic Positivity

Overcoming toxic positivity requires learning to regulate our emotions. This skill should be practiced both individually and as a team.

There are three types of emotional regulation:

1. Emotional suppression: We experience an emotion, but silence its behavioral expressions. Unfortunately, suppression creates the opposite outcome: we end up focusing on negative emotions rather than positive ones.

2. Emotional acceptance: This is a more effective approach in which we accept our feelings without fighting or judging them. By learning to observe our emotions without doing anything, we learn to not run away from them.  

3. Emotional Reappraisal: To successfully reframe your emotions, you must first recognize the pattern. Emotional reappraisal is cognitive by nature. By making sense of our feelings, we can dial them down a notch.

The critical antidote to toxic positivity is cognitive reappraisal. Our life satisfaction depends not so much on our worries, anxieties, or sad experiences but on how we deal with them.

Dr. Susan David, the author of Emotional Agility, recommends showing up. Instead of ignoring difficult emotions or overemphasizing positive thinking, choose to face your emotions and behaviors head-on – with curiosity and kindness.

In her book, David cites the Mills longitudinal study. By analyzing facial expressions from class photographs of a women’s foundation, researchers determined who smiled genuinely and who faked it. After tracking women’s lives for decades, they concluded that ‘authentic smilers’ had better relationships, better emotional management, and higher life satisfaction.

Emotional agility helps us navigate life’s turns with self-acceptance, clarity, and an open mind. By facing our emotions with courage and compassion, we can reframe our emotional narrative.

People who practice unconditional self-acceptance – allowing themselves to experience whatever emotions arise without judgment – can separate performance from self-worth and are less likely to feel depressed.

Reframing our emotions require acceptance, validation, and support. In the workplace, leaders need to set the tone that it’s okay to not be okay.

Start by changing the language when a teammate needs help:

Reframing emotions doesn’t mean eliminating accountability. You need to give your team time to breathe if you want them to recover and be back in full shape and form.

How to Avoid Toxic Positivity from Ruining Your Culture

Your emotional culture is powerful. Here are some ways to reframe your team's emotions I recommend based on my research and consulting.

1. Name it to tame it

Effectively regulating our emotions starts by befriending them. As the saying goes, name it to tame it.

The Emotional Culture Deck is an effective way to create conversations about emotions at work. Gamifying the experience makes it easier to familiarize oneself with one's emotions. This tool inspires great conversations about the emotions that we feel as a team, regardless of whether or not want to.

Psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma recommends having a place to park our emotions, like keeping a journal or having a hobby that helps us acknowledge all our feelings.

Making space for our emotions is crucial in order to name what we are feeling without judging how we feel.

2. Invite colleagues to check in their emotions

Save the first 5-10 minutes of a weekly meeting to make space for your team to acknowledge their emotions.

Start with a check-in round, asking what’s keeping them worried, stressed, or anxious. During this activity, everyone pays attention when someone else is sharing – there’s no room for interruptions or comments.

Check-in rounds create a safe space for people to reconnect with their feelings, grounding the team before they jump into the work. For teams that have difficulty addressing theirs in public, use a metaphor. For example, ask, “What was the weather like for your work this past week?”

When people are invited to check-in their emotions, they no longer feel the pressure to bottle them.

3. Understand how emotions affect your team

Mindsets, emotions, and behaviors are interconnected, creating positive or negative outcomes.

The Cultural Tensions Canvas is a visual tool to map and address team tensions. By capturing the emotions, mindsets, and behaviors at play, team members can reframe conflict and focus on the real problem.

This tool was designed with the notion that emotions are neither good nor bad – what we do with them can be positive or negative. All emotions are listed equally; it’s up to team members to determine which one drives or blocks them, or to define which mindsets are liberating and which are limiting.

Mapping cultural tensions is an effective way to acknowledge how emotions, mindsets, and behaviors feed off of each other – to acknowledge the system that shapes team performance.

4. Find meaning amid chaos

Tragic optimism is a better response to negative experiences than toxic positivity. It invites us to find hope and meaning in life while acknowledging loss, pain, and suffering.

Coined by psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, tragic optimism encourages us to integrate the good and the bad – to experience and grow from each.

Experts believe that this approach helps deal with the pandemic and social isolation that most remote workers are experiencing. Acknowledge the difficulties and painful emotions and focus on finding hope. As for suffering, Frankl doesn’t claim that we must suffer to discover meaning, but that meaning can be found despite, or even because of, suffering.

To be tragically optimistic is a happy medium – instead of letting hardship crush your spirit, you turn it into a learning moment. Finding meaning amid adversity will help you emerge from the crisis stronger and wiser.

Tragic optimism encourages learning and growth; rather than avoiding painful conversations, team members learn to cope with disruptions and unfortunate events.

5. Set want-to goals versus have-to ones

Perception is not reality, but most of the time, we act as if it were. Our mind operates in deceptive ways; we let narratives take over. This affects not only our perceptions, but also our choices.

When it comes to setting your team goals, do they reflect what you really want? Susan David distinguishes between want-to and have-to goals. Unfortunately, behavioral contagion causes us to pursue what other people are doing versus what we want (and need) to do. Focus less on tasks and more on the goals and how those connect to the team values.

Start by identifying your top three core values as a team. Then write a letter to your team; where do you want to be in 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, and 5 years from now?

Want-to goals not only increase motivation, but also focus. Teams do their best work when they stop trying to emulate others and act authentically.

6. Avoid labeling your colleagues

We are not our emotions; we just experience different ones.

In a culture that rewards fake positivity over authenticity, labeling people is a dangerous habit.

When you say that one of your colleagues is “negative,” you are not just referring to how that person feels, but putting them in a box. Emotions come and go. Today you can feel sad; tomorrow you'll be more optimistic. Labeling gets people stuck into one single emotion forever.

If you use labels to describe people, they not only get stuck in a box – but your perception becomes rigid, too. Avoid using one emotion as evidence of who people are – we feel emotions, but we are not what we feel.

Rather than labeling people for what they feel, help them confront all their emotions. What are they telling you? Why are these emotions present?

7. Lead with vulnerability

Great leaders are not perfect, but human. Vulnerability is a powerful tool that can be used to build trust within an organization.

In this great HubSpot piece, the author explains why authentic leadership is critical, especially in tough times:

“That’s why I don’t think leaders should try to put rose-colored glasses on the chaos that is 2020. Even if business is good, we should be honest with our teams about how we’re feeling. Showing honest vulnerability as a leader builds stronger, more cohesive teams — and it’s transparently inauthentic to say that things in the world are going well today.”

As a leader, it’s okay for you to recognize when you aren't at your best. Sharing your struggles will inspire your team to fight their own battles.

Practicing authentic and vulnerable leadership is vital to support teams during tough times. Once the new normal comes, it will continue to help your team do their best work.  

Don’t Let Toxic Positivity Ruin Your Culture

There’s nothing wrong with a positive attitude. The problem with toxic positivity is pretending to look happy all the time, even when you're feeling down. Suppressing emotions won’t make the negative ones go away; it will actually backfire.

Support your team by helping them connect with – and reframe – their emotions. Validate their feelings by seeking to understand what they are going through. Make space for your team to share their emotions.

Toxic positivity is a hard price to pay. Tony Hseih couldn’t admit to others he was feeling down – instead he opted to hide in his shell. And that ended in anything but a happy note.

Leading with authenticity is good for business and good for leaders. Take care of your culture by taking care of your people and yourself.

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