Employee Engagement Employee Recognition

'Only good vibes allowed!' - How toxic positivity in the workplace can damage employee morale


Being in the business of employee recognition and rewards, you’d imagine we’d be all about the good vibes, wouldn’t you?

And yes, to a certain extent we are, but at bountiXP we also know that there is a major difference between shining a light on positive employee actions, and full-on wartime-newspaper-blacking-out any glimmer of negativity or oops.

So today we are taking a look at toxic positivity - a nasty little manipulation tactic that has been around ever since the first Neanderthal grunted at their buddy to look on the bright side of a sabre-toothed tiger attack, and has again skyrocketed in popularity during the pandemic crisis when panicked corporate leaders tried to sweep all sorts of 100% natural negative feelings under a big ol’ metaphorical rug. 


READ MORE: Why a post-COVID-19 talent management strategy is necessary


What on earth is toxic positivity? 

Any move to suppress, minimise, or invalidate real, negative emotions on the part of another human being can be considered toxic positivity. 

Check out our YouTube channel for awesome videos on everything from the science of employee recognition to creating an internal communications strategy for enhanced engagement.

Here’s what it might look, and sound, like in the workplace: 


“You should really try to be more positive.”

When you share a legitimate worry, someone telling you to be positive is extremely dismissive. A better response would be listening to the concern and following with a statement like 'Tell me more?', or acting as a soundboard by addressing the gist of the issue. The point is to make the person feel heard, and not judged for their feelings. 


“Everything is going to be fine.” 

This type of line is often delivered with grim determination and a static, stoic little smile. When layoffs were looming at the height of lockdown, many leaders insisted on insisting that everything was fine. Instead of making this kind of false promises about a team's future, managers should be transparent and specific about challenges and plans to address them. 

For instance, a good approach would be something along the lines of, "Things are very uncertain right now, but we value your contribution to the company more than you can imagine. We are working on contingency plans as we speak and will be sharing information with you as it becomes available. Your direct manager will conduct a quick meeting first thing every morning to keep you abreast of developments."


“2020 was a challenge, but we grabbed it by the horns!”

Glossing over the immense impact of something as hugely life-changing as a pandemic is straight-up not okay. People lost loved ones and livelihoods. 

“You’ll be okay, at least it’s not XYZ!”

Invalidating or minimising a person’s loss or fear about a given experience or set of circumstances is not okay. In cases like these, it’s best to listen rather than talk. Allow them to get it out. 


The effects of toxic positivity in the workplace

When toxic positively is allowed to run rampant in the workplace without anyone speaking up, it can lead to: 


  • A decline in employee mental health. Studies show that “when people think others expect them not to feel negative emotions (i.e. sadness), they experience more negative emotion and reduced well-being.”

  • A lack of trust. When employees are discouraged from expressing what they really think and feel, they start to withhold many of their thoughts and feelings, leading to intense emotional labour (i.e. the process of managing emotions in order to interact with other people in an expected way while doing a job). Co-workers can intuitively tell when someone is not being genuine, and this process actually acts as a barrier between the emotional labourer and their colleagues because they don't seem trustworthy.
  • Triangulation. Triangulation occurs when a leader is so focused on getting their team to be positive that they don't actually listen to what people are struggling with. As a result, the struggling party will rather speak to other people than going straight to the person who could actually help them solve the issue. This erodes trust to a great degree, and is very bad for overall company culture.  

These are just three of the ways in which a culture of ‘only good vibes allowed’ can negatively impact your employees. There are many more. 


READ MORE: The three Ps of improving organisational performance even during a pandemic


How to avoid toxic positivity at your company

Here are five ways in which you can lay the groundwork for a more open and inclusive narrative at your place of work: 


  1. Avoid automatic positive spin. Instead, keep communication clear and open. Allow for discussions of negative things, and then follow up with a dialogue about solutions. 

  2. When emotions run high, find a balance by looking at the facts. When your team slips into negative territory, don't stop it cold. Guide them back to a more positive outlook by facing facts that go beyond their emotions about a given event or issue.

  3. Stay nimble and be willing to be unprepared. Sometimes there are no answers. In situations like these a leader should be honest enough to say 'I don't know, but my hope is that we can figure it out together.'

  4. Don't dole out 'negative' labels. When you label an employee as negative, you are painting them into a very tight corner where they are never able to raise any concerns without looking like a naysayer who can't find a positive angle.

  5. Treat your people like people. Go back to basics and keep a close eye on your daily interactions and those of your team leaders. Pulse surveys can also be very handy in this regard - ask your employees to raise a red flag when things get a little too brightside-y. 


READ MORE: 6 Essential communication skills for HR professionals


There you have it - the skinny on toxic positivity in a nutshell. Check back soon for more insider insights on paving the way for a balanced corporate dialogue that allows your employees to find their stride at times of strife. 


In the meantime, we invite you to subscribe to our YouTube channel for great video content on everything from addressing common barriers to employee engagement, to how employee morale can be boosted with the right communication drive. 

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