“I think that they are too positive.” That was the start of a coaching session a leader once had with me when we were discussing one of their employees. It can be a weird and confusing feeling to realize that you are interacting with someone with toxic positivity. On the one hand, we emphasize the importance of having a positive outlook as things get tough, but on the other, a relentless pursuit of positivity can have adverse effects on mental health and relationships with others.  Addressing toxic positivity can be a challenge. Here are some tips as you work through the approach and acknowledge someone’s emotions. 

What is toxic positivity?


Toxic positivity is when a person puts up blinders and/or ignores all negative thoughts or feelings. They will often pretend that everything is fine when it is not. 

Whitney Goodman, a licensed psychotherapist and author of “Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy,” describes toxic positivity as the “unrelenting pressure to be happy and positive, no matter what the circumstances are.”

It’s not always like the meme of the dog saying “This is fine” while he happily sits at a table while the house is on fire around him. Toxic positivity can show itself as offering a simple solution to a complicated problem. As a leader, it can show itself by not allowing others to share critical or negative opinions when it’s appropriate. 

Help elevate their emotional intelligence


The person may not even realize that they have this challenge and blinders. Help them grow their self-awareness by assisting them in recognizing and acknowledging their own feeling and emotions. It’s also important to help them see and understand that it’s normal and safe for them to experience a range of emotions as an employee and as a leader. 

As you lead the person, show them empathy and how they can model that trait as they interact with others. Help the person mature past statements like, “It could be worse”, “You should be thankful for what you do have,” and “Just think positive.” Instead help them offer support, activate those active listening skills, and lean into empathy. For more resources check out our show Empathy, sympathy, and pity. (Show 261)

Create a safe space to be authentic


Being authentic can be harder than it seems, especially for a new leader or a new employee. The person wants to put the best version of themselves out there and typically has a high desire to be accepted by everyone.  Addressing toxic positivity involves creating a space where individuals feel comfortable expressing their authentic emotions without judgment. As a leader, you need to build trust with the person and the larger team to begin building that kind of environment for people to share their true feelings and emotions. You also need to live it out yourself and express your own emotions and vulnerabilities with others as well. Lean into genuine conversations, so that you can break down the facade of forced positivity and encourage a more authentic understanding of each other’s experiences.

It’s a journey


Addressing toxic positivity can be complex, it’s a more complicated growth path than telling someone that they need to fix a superficial issue, like attendance, dress code, etc. Specifically, acknowledge and encourage the person as they open up more and communicate a larger range of emotions with others. Reinforce that feeling of safety for them and continue to offer guidance when you see it still manifesting itself. 

Toxic positivity is certainly more nuanced than other behavioral issues that you will face as a leader. Care for your person by showing them that it’s ok to be authentic with themselves and others. 

Make a better tomorrow. 
-ZH