Optimism is a valued trait in the American workplace. Optimism accounts for 30% of an employee’s inspiration at work, according to a survey by Leadership IQ. Optimists may deal with workplace stress better. And they may even be healthier.
But having a relentlessly sunny attitude can also be a problem, says licensed clinical psychologist Robyn L. Gobyn, assistant professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and author of The Doing My Work Therapy Journal. When your optimism clouds your view to the point where you can’t see—or, worse, deny—real problems, you could be causing more problems than you’re solving.
“What I tell [my clients] is that I want them to look at the world through clear-colored glasses, not rose-colored glasses,” she says. “It’s possible to cross the line and be too optimistic.”
When optimism turns into denial—a situation experts such as Gobyn call “toxic positivity”—it can wreak havoc on workplace relationships. So, understanding the difference between the two is important.
Understanding the difference
Optimism means that you expect or anticipate positive outcomes, or perhaps you expect the best from others. But when you are repeatedly “blindsided” by outcomes, you may be unrealistically optimistic, says organizational psychology consultant David Shar. When your expectations are repeatedly not matching the data and you’re not prepared for a negative outcome, you might have crossed the line, he says.
“You keep saying, ‘This thing is going to work out, or coronavirus is going to be over next week,’ and that doesn’t happen,” he says. If you are denying real problems in favor of happy outcomes, you need to take a closer look at how you’re processing data, he says. A 2017 study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition says that, while it’s difficult to say for certain if someone has unrealistic optimism, one indicator is if they update their beliefs based on new information. If they’re only looking at the positive information and updating beliefs with an optimistic bias, there may be a problem.
What’s so bad about being too positive?
Of all the issues to worry about, why is toxic positivity a big deal? Mostly because of the impact it has on your team, says therapist Lauren Cook, author of Name Your Story: How to Talk Openly About Mental Health while Embracing Wellness. Your unrealistic optimism may be creating barriers to their success.
Gobyn agrees. When you’re on the path to toxic positivity, you may be invalidating your emotions and those of the people around you. Instead of acknowledging that there may be challenges or difficulties and preparing for them, people who are in the thick of toxic positivity simply deny the potential for problems. “I want them to see the fullness of their potential, and to notice that, yes, this is a challenging moment. And yes, I’m having difficult emotions right now. And also, I can do hard things,” she says. Looking at your past realistically and reminding yourself of the hard things you’ve overcome before can give you both insight and strength.
Your team members may also feel like you’re gaslighting them, Cook says. Someone may be sharing difficult information or emotions with you, and if you respond simply, “Oh, it’s going to be fine,” you could be invalidating someone’s experience. And that can erode trust, diminish your credibility as a leader, and lead to resentment and disengagement, she says.
Cook, who also wrote a book on happiness, has first-hand experience with the matter. “My original brand was the sunny girl. I would literally wear a yellow dress when I would go out and speak,” she says. But her research on happiness has revealed that people are actually happier and less likely to engage in behaviors that obscure emotions when they’re living authentically. “I think it’s the reason why a lot of us engage in unhealthy numbing behaviors, because we’re not learning how to handle difficult, painful emotions. And that work is honestly just as important as learning how to be happy,” she says.
Guarding against toxic positivity
So, how can you prevent slipping into toxic positivity while still maintaining your optimistic outlook? It starts with looking at the data, Shar says. We all have confirmation bias, he says. But if we work at looking at circumstances and information objectively and allow for the possibility that things might not turn out the way we expect, we can prepare for those outcomes.
Gobyn says that tuning in to our emotions is also essential. “Our emotions are like those alerts that come on in our car, like that the tire pressure is low. And we can definitely ignore them and keep driving. But at some point, like the tire is going to be flat, or there’s no oil, and the current system won’t be functioning,” she says. When you feel that sense that things might not be alright, check in with yourself and figure out why.
Shar says it’s also important to surround yourself with people who may be more objective or who have a different outlook and truly listen to what they have to say. “If you know that you tend to be overly optimistic, you’ve got to get a realist in there—somebody who’s a little bit maybe more critical, who’s going to challenge you, and you have to make sure to give that person a voice,” he says. This not only informs your outlook, but it also makes your team members feel heard and can cultivate greater trust.