Leading Yourself Through Toxic Positivity

by | Sep 7, 2022 | Personal Growth, Professional Growth

Woman pushing cheeks up into a smile

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

– William Arthur Ward

Positivity — to see the best in every situation and effectively managing our negative thoughts. While positivity is appreciated in the workplace, we are now learning too much good news can lead to bad decision making.

Toxic positivity is the false sense of perceiving and communicating that all is well. Where we describe the glass as half full — and it is not.

Supervisor: “How are things going?”
Employee: “Everything is fine.”
Supervisor: “Great — thanks for the update.”

This exchange happens every day, at all organizations. Why is the truth difficult to share? Fear? Being labeled as negative? Regardless of the reason, the result is the glass is described as full or at least half full — and it is not.

Let’s look at three challenges these conversations cause in the workplace.

  1. Behind the reflex response of everything is fine can be undisclosed trouble. An “everything is fine” echo chamber can destroy organizations.
  2. The myth continues that leaders don’t want to hear bad news. Leaders need their people to be transparent, sharing what is going well and not well. While good news feels great, bad news keeps us attached to reality.
  3. Leaders who accept updates without follow-up questions are not doing their job. We need to set clear expectations for accurate reality checks and ask open-ended questions that surface the root cause of problems.

Our people need to learn how to lead up, and our leaders need to be better prepared to step up.

I know the challenges of being a serial optimist. My career was built on the belief that positive people move ahead; negative people get left behind. What I did not realize until later in my professional life, is that a positive outlook is important yet too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

I remember an example when my overly optimistic behavior was challenged by my supervisor. She asked me “that all sounds great – what are you not telling me?” Her coaching helped me to get comfortable describing actual reality, not desired reality. I also learned not to accept “everything is fine” as I managed others, asking more questions when I sensed the truth was being withheld.

Sometimes the bad news is the good news.

Three keys to managing toxic positivity:

Tell Me More

A good start is to stop accepting superficial answers. Professionals need to keep you regularly informed beyond a few words. Shallow questions lead to poor answers. We need to ask questions that require critical thinking, leading to identifying what is and is not going well.


Leaders expect mistakes and failures to be surfaced, not buried. To create these conversations, we need to have an environment built on trust. Start by sharing when you were not at your best, a decision you wish you had back. By sharing our mistakes, we can teach others to avoid following the same course.

Authentic Language

Everything will be OK. It could be worse. We got this. These statements may be well intentioned, but they can be harmful. False optimism – our people hear it, feel it, and are not motivated by empty words. Let’s be clear – sometimes we don’t got this.

There is power in having a positive outlook. We need good news to propel us forward through adversity. The key is to match your positivity to reality. Drop the “everything is fine” and try “we are in good shape but here are a couple of challenges you should know about”. A real conversation worth having.

Leading Your Team

A helpful article on getting your point across. We all want to have our thoughts heard and appreciated, and there are several tips to improve your message.

Stop Rambling in Meetings

Read to Lead

Leaders benefit from being active readers, long reads not just social media posts and news feeds. A deep read builds concentration, strengthens your intellectual capacity, and offers wisdom you can share. As you refresh or build your reading habit, diversify your experience — old, new, fiction, non-fiction, audio, hard cover, and e-readers.


My August favorites:

Finding Me by Viola Davis
The actor Viola Davis describes her rise to overcome poverty and racism in Rhode Island, to becoming a star on Broadway and the silver screen. She came to realize her life was adrift and being controlled by others, and understood the solution was to find her true self. Her powerful journey is inspiring.

Path Lit by Lightning by David Maraniss

A biography of Jim Thorpe, widely considered to be the greatest athlete of all time. The author highlights Thorpe’s childhood as a member of the Sac and Fox Nation tribe in Oklahoma, his athletic conquests including a gold medal in the 1912 Olympics, and the enormous hurdles he faced as Native American. A story of persistence, tragedy, and strong character.


Have a great week!