What are the management implications of toxic positivity?

What are the management implications of toxic positivity?
4 minutes read

We have all seen that leader or manager who remains upbeat and pumped when the sky is falling down. The boss who exclaims, “You’ll get through this”, or repeatedly says to the team, “Yes, we can do this!”, are some examples. Despite redundancies, intense periods of effort, mounting problems and reorganisations, “Everything’s going to be great”. The trouble is that one more “You’ll smash it” or “It can only be you who does this” might dismiss your own feelings one too many times. Many an empire has crumbled when surrounded by “Yes” men. So, today we ask, what are the management implications of toxic positivity?


Definition of toxic positivity

Toxic positivity, or positive toxicity, is a dysfunctional emotional philosophy whereby negative emotions are not acknowledged and positive emotions are suggested or displayed. In other words, it is when someone convinces themselves that if they take a positive mindset and use positive language, any challenging situation or insurmountable obstruction can be overcome. Although we know that there are benefits of a positive mindset, which opens people up to new possibilities, toxic positivity ignores the negative feelings, bad experiences and difficult situation in which people find themselves.

There are also parallels with gaslighting, wherein excessive and effusive positivity leads people to question their own reality. Am I overthinking things? Can I handle this project? Unfortunately, if every situation and big change is “No biggie” and you hear “Don’t worry”, “It’ll be easy” and “You’ll be fine”, your boss may be positively toxic. Furthermore, it may descend into abuse, downplaying your concerns and feelings or devaluing your contributions and suggestions. Some people are narcissistic, believing that their ability lies in manipulating others. Abuse may also be used to cover gaslighting, narcissistic and abusive behaviour.

Sounds serious, right? So, what are the management implications of toxic positivity?


Positive toxicity management implications

In general, this is not a positive management trait. Sure, a little positivity helps to keep people motivated and to solve problems. However, a complete disregard for the reality of the situation may cause staff to feel anxious, inadequate and out of control. All of these have severe implications for mental health, especially if the situation is dire. Just to be clear, we don’t mean a short-term issue, we mean a long-term attitude to suppress negativity and to pressure positivity. If your team of 6 has become 2 but the manager says it’s no problem, that is not how the 2 remaining people feel.

Similarly, if you are undertaking a large-scale transformation, a merger or a restructuring, people will naturally have negative feelings and concerns. After all, this is a large change with an unknown amount of work and complexity at the outset. Additionally, the individual may not understand how it will impact them and their surroundings. They may have no say in what is happening to their team, department, systems, processes or their job. The CEO who extols all of the virtues without acknowledging the problems may lose the hearts and minds of staff. The manager who cries out, “There are no excuses”, “We will just work harder” or “We will all be stronger after this”, is failing to remedy the problem.

The true downsides may take a while to reveal themselves. Staff may start to leave. Reports that should take minutes take days. Broken processes persist. Systems become incapable of doing what is needed. People don’t complete the employee engagement survey or simply lie. Yet, the manager stays relentlessly positive, saying yes to everything, even if they fail to deliver or deliver slowly. Eventually, the employee experience deteriorates to the point that talent doesn’t stick around. The remaining staff don’t want to take on more responsibility. The poor performers can’t or won’t do extra work. An organisation that doesn’t acknowledge problems becomes the Titanic with nobody watching for icebergs.

So, how do we deal with it?


Dealing with toxic positivity in managers

There is a hard to distinguish line between encouragement and blithely ignoring or overriding people’s concerns. The best leaders actively listen to the concerns and feelings of their teams. This acknowledges them as individuals, their concerns as real and their feelings as important. It also enables you to understand the root causes of the concern and to work out how to support. It is not uncommon that senior leaders don’t see the day-to-day processes, tools, equipment and systems that staff work with. They may also be unaware of limitations, the challenges that staff face every day and how productive people are. It could be that your managers are the root cause of the problem, cutting you off from insight into the malaise of the organisation.

Ultimately, there are a few solutions:

  1. Cultural change led from the top-down to acknowledge mental health and to practice honest conversations without fear of retribution.
  2. Flatten the organisation structure, or at least increase communication channels and the availability of leadership, inviting people with concerns to speak up and be heard.
  3. Coaching and support for managers to understand their toxic positivity, showing empathy towards their behaviour and providing mindfulness tools to overcome it.


Assurance when everyone tells you things are great

Here at Think Beyond, we help senior leaders to achieve their targets in the right way. This includes governance over change programmes, support for project workstreams and agile change. We also provide assurance for your plans to identify anything needed to support delivering the performance you need. This also includes any obstacles to change and finding the root causes of organisational issues. We don’t judge or tell you how easy it will be to achieve – we tell you what is happening and where to support and improve.

If you would like to ask us a question or support your teams, simply drop us a note via email. Alternatively, simply ask us for a free initial introduction via ‘Plan – Assurance’ on our website.

Finally, why not check out our assurance services or read some of our thoughts on the topic.