Optimism vs Toxic Positivity: Spotting the Difference (and Why It Matters)

by | Last updated Jun 28, 2023 | Culture, Emotional Intelligence, Leadership

Toxic Positivity


We all have that one person in the office who is always positive, no matter the situation. They greet every challenge with a smile and seem to have unshakeable faith in a brighter tomorrow. While their unwavering optimism can be infectious and inspiring, have you ever wondered if it might be toxic?

Imagine a scenario where you’re facing an overwhelming deadline, and instead of acknowledging your stress and offering support, your ultra-positive colleague brushes off your concerns with a casual “Don’t worry, everything will be fine!” While they may have good intentions, their dismissal of your emotions can leave you feeling unheard and invalidated. This is where the line between healthy optimism and toxic positivity begins to blur.


Understanding Optimism and Toxic Positivity

Optimism is a constructive mindset that acknowledges and accepts negative situations or emotions while focusing on finding solutions and maintaining a hopeful outlook. In contrast, toxic positivity is an attitude that blindly keeps a positive outlook while dismissing or invalidating any other emotions or situations.

Research shows that maintaining a positive outlook helps us feel better and do better. In fact, one study found that positive emotions are associated with better health, longer life, and overall well-being. While optimism can provide numerous benefits, toxic positivity can have the opposite effect, leading to increased stress, decreased emotional resilience, and strained relationships.

A person with an optimistic approach will acknowledge the difficulty but focus on finding a solution. In contrast, a person who displays toxic positivity will dismiss or invalidate any that doesn’t fit into the positive narrative and often miss addressing the problem. So, we can identify the difference between optimism and toxic positivity by observing their response to negative emotions or situations.


Addressing Toxic Positivity

If someone is being toxically positive, it’s important to acknowledge their intention but express how their approach may not be helpful. Encourage them to speak openly about their negative emotions, struggles or failures, empathize with them and encourage a collaborative approach to find a solution. Create a compassionate environment where everyone can express themselves honestly and without judgment to help prevent toxic positivity from becoming the norm.

In an organizational context, striking the right balance between positivity and realism is crucial for creating a healthy, optimistic work environment. Let’s look at an example of how optimism and toxic positivity can impact organizational culture.


Example: Toxic Culture

Facing a challenging quarter due to an impending recession, a company decides to lay off 10% of its employees. The leadership team emphasizes the importance of acting as if it’s “business as usual” and dismisses employees’ frustrations, fears, and feedback, reinforcing a culture of fear and competition. The problem persists as the remaining employees feel like they could be next.

If the toxic culture remains unaddressed, the consequences can be detrimental to the organization as a whole. Employee morale and job satisfaction may plummet, leading to higher turnover rates and lower productivity. The stifled communication and lack of trust can hinder innovation and effective problem-solving, further exacerbating the company’s challenges. Additionally, the company’s reputation as an employer may suffer, making it difficult to attract and retain top talent in the long run.


To promote a more optimistic outlook and bring about change, professional management should:

  1. Acknowledge the difficulties faced by the company and provide employees with opportunities to express their concerns and feedback.
  2. Promote a culture of sincerity and authenticity, where employees feel comfortable expressing themselves honestly.
  3. Validate employees’ emotions and feedback, encouraging them to express their concerns openly.
  4. Focus on finding solutions to address the challenges while maintaining an optimistic outlook.
  5. Emphasize the importance of maintaining open communication and transparency to build trust within the company.
  6. Emphasize the importance of finding a balance between positivity and realism, where acknowledging the negative is just as important as focusing on the positive.


Example: Optimistic Culture

Facing a challenging quarter due to an impending recession, a company decides to lay off 10% of its employees. The leadership team acknowledges the difficulties and provides opportunities for employees to express their concerns and feedback, reinforcing a culture of trust and resilience. This approach leads to increased morale, reduced fear, and enhanced collaboration throughout the organization, even in the face of adversity.

By focusing on finding solutions to address the challenges, they maintain an optimistic outlook while being realistic about the situation. They ensure open communication and transparency, fostering trust within the company. As a result, the employees feel more secure and valued, even amidst challenging circumstances. This leads to increased morale, reduced fear, and enhanced collaboration throughout the organization. By following these steps, the company creates a culture of sincerity, authenticity, and optimism, which ultimately supports the well-being and productivity of both the employees and the organization as a whole.


Fostering a Healthy Environment

Life’s not always rainbows and butterflies. It’s essential to strike a balance between positivity and realism. By understanding the difference between optimism and toxic positivity, you can create a work environment that nurtures resilience, fosters trust and encourages growth.

Ready to make a difference in your organization? Start by practicing healthy optimism, focusing on solutions, and maintaining a hopeful outlook. Encourage open conversations and provide a safe space for your colleagues to share their feelings and experiences. Together, we can create a more supportive and authentic organizational culture, leaving toxic positivity behind!



About the author

Jason Boivin, Lead Content Strategist at innerlogic.

Jason holds a master’s degree in Human Kinetics with a concentration in Intervention and Consultation from the University of Ottawa in Canada, is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association, and is a Chartered Professional Coach with the Coaches Association of Canada.

Jason is driven by his passion for helping others succeed in a meaningful way. Through his extensive work with high-performance teams, Jason has developed a deep appreciation for culture and its impact on relationships and results.



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