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Toxic Positivity in the Workplace

Toxic negativity is something we absolutely must avoid. But an overly positive attitude, if taken too far, poses its own risks and dangers to business – and recruiting.

The power of positive thinking
We’re all aware of the dangers of “toxic negativity:” successful people from all walks of life, and countless social media memes drive home the importance of maintaining a positive attitude in everything we do. We are bombarded every day with messages about the power of positive thinking.

But like any powerful thing, positive thinking poses its own set of risks and dangers – if we take it too far.

Toxic negativity, a familiar foe

Some people constantly express negative ideas and emotions. They cannot see the good in anything. Extremely negative people don’t offer compliments; they don’t see the upside, only the downside; they always see the glass as half-empty, never half-full. No matter the topic of conversation, an overly negative person will feel compelled to share unflattering opinions or strong criticism.

We call this behaviour toxic negativity. I think everyone knows a colleague, relative, or friend like this. Their negativity is overwhelming, and difficult to be around. It can be a real drag on relationships and careers.

HR managers and team leaders avoid hiring people with a negative attitude because it can spread and affect an organisation’s morale, and inhibit team-building efforts.

What is toxic positivity?

There are more rewards and benefits to being positive than being negative. We are encouraged to be positive, no matter what difficulties or troubles we are facing.

I think a positive attitude can be taken too far, especially if we start to see the world entirely through rose-coloured glasses. Blind optimism can pose dangers to an organisation if the seriousness of problems are continually downplayed, if company leadership is always focused on promoting good news and feels the need to suppress bad news.

We all feel pressure to constantly display positive emotions and an upbeat attitude in the office. But nothing in this world is entirely positive – or entirely negative. Like anything else, when taken to extremes, a positive attitude can become toxic. Toxic positivity is an unhealthy coping mechanism that can risk an organisation’s continued success almost as much as toxic negativity.

If we shy away from unpleasant truths, focus only on the positive and ignore the negative side of things, we may overlook the root causes of a problem. By maintaining an artificially positive attitude, we may lose the objectivity required to make the best decisions for our business. We must face existential problems head-on, even if it triggers negative emotions and discomfort.

Facing Reality

Many of our clients are in a position of power and authority. They have management roles at global companies that are industry leaders. Pride in your organisation is great, but sometimes we can be so bullish about the company we work for, that we don’t realise how others see our brand from the outside.

Yes, the client’s company may be a good employer, but if we believe in our own organisation’s PR too much, we may not be able to understand why a lot of qualified professionals are turning down job offers to join the team. Some positions are not as thrilling to candidates as our clients expect.

Corporate clients understandably want more choices, a bigger and better pool of candidates, so they can cherry-pick from a strong shortlist. But often that’s not realistic.

For example, sometimes we present our short list to a client, after conducting a lot of due diligence and sorting through hundreds of resumes. The client is not satisfied because they imagine there should be a much bigger pool of willing, capable candidates for the position. However, as professional recruiters, we already know that this job really isn’t in such great demand. We are certain, because we talk to thousands of candidates each year and have our finger on the pulse of the labour market.

In cases like this a good recruiter will try to advise clients that the short-listed candidates are the best choices available. But it’s not always easy for clients to hear this truth, if they have come to believe to strongly in their organisation’s own PR.

Likewise, if a recruiter is too positive and hopeful, or afraid of expressing negative sentiments to the client, we can waste a lot of time searching for a needle in a haystack.

Sometimes clients can be too positive about their team and company, to the point that it blinds them to the harsh reality of the marketplace.  I’ve seen unrealistic positivity hurt organisations that always think they can do better; they reject viable candidates, leaving roles vacant longer than necessary.

Whether you are a recruiter or an HR manager it’s important to be honest with yourself, and look clearly at market intel, without emotion.

Should I stay or should I go?

Many Thais struggle to maintain a positive attitude about an unfulfilling job. I wish I had 100 baht for every time I’ve heard this:

I want to leave my job. I mean, it’s great, I get a good salary, but the job is killing me. I work six days a week, 12 hours or more per day, and my boss expects me always to be on-call.

It takes a lot of mental energy to stay positive in a situation like this. We’ve all been there. We look at the positive, ignore the negative and remain in denial. We stay in an unsustainable situation for short-term financial stability; because of financial need, or because of fear.

Today, conversations about work in Thailand increasingly revolve around psychology and mental health, the “work-life balance.” The traditional unquestioning respect for authority and hierarchy is creating a bit of a generational clash in the workplace.

Many of my friends feel depressed about their jobs. But they don’t want to reveal their frustration, they keep it all inside, because they fear losing face. They don’t want anyone to know they are unhappy. From the outside, it looks like they are successful, with a prestigious job, but they are deeply unsatisfied with their quality of life. They will never tell HR about their discontent, or ask their boss for more money, a five-day work week, or a cap on unpaid overtime.

If your job is making you miserable, it’s time for a change. You need to talk to someone about it. If you put all your efforts into projecting a positive image, the problem will only get worse, and could affect your mental health.

In cases like this, maintaining a positive image prevents us from making a necessary career move. The struggle to stay positive can become toxic when it contradicts our own self-interest.

The Human Factor

In the recruitment industry, the reality is we do not have control. It’s almost impossible to forecast human behaviour. People make unpredictable decisions, and sometimes things don’t go the way we expect. Handling and anticipating this ‘human factor’ is what separates great recruiters from the pack.

We interview candidates and ask questions that we already know the answer to. Why do we ask, if we already know the answer? Because we are looking for greater understanding and insight into what motivates a candidate; a good recruiter studies body language and can read between the lines to look more deeply into a candidate’s response.

It is really important for recruiters to ‘trust their gut’, and not be overly optimistic. For example, sometimes we can tell if a passive candidate is not serious about making a move, and is just testing out the waters to see what’s out there. Maybe they made it to a final interview, but didn’t accept a good offer. Maybe some details about their personal life suggest they may relocate soon, or will grow weary of a long commute. Maybe they are having relationship problems at home and are in a bit of turmoil. This is crucially important information. This is why we place so much emphasis at JacksonGrant at forming long-term relationships with both clients and candidates.

Too often a recruiter will keep a candidate in their active talent pools, continue sending them out for interviews, because they are attractive candidates on paper, and will impress a client. We may try to be positive, and think this time will be different – even though we know deep down this candidate doesn’t have their heart set on a new job; we are in denial. This is a mild form of toxic positivity that recruiters must beware of.

How to foster authentic positivity in the workplace

How do we know when we’ve taken positivity too far? Sometimes we try too hard to maintain a positive attitude. If the happiness you project is not authentic, if you are merely keeping up appearances, it can eventually affect your mental health.

Toxic positivity exists because people feel they can’t be honest in their workplace. Companies should provide a safe space for employees to talk about problems at work, without fear of repercussions or consequences. This can help overall productivity and job satisfaction. It also gives employers valuable insights on team morale, HR policies, and office culture.  

At JacksonGrant, we use an app called Happily. It enables employers and employees to talk anonymously, which opens a new channel of honest communication with management.

It’s important to give employees freedom to express themselves. Just as individuals get stressed and have mental health problems when they suppress their feelings, a company’s morale will decline and HR problems will fester if they are not brought to light. Management will not understand their workforce if everyone is pretending to love their job, when the reality is quite different.

Reach out to a recruiter

If you think it is time to make a career move; if your company has a key position that is challenging to fill; or if you’re an HR professional looking for ways to strengthen internal communication, our recruitment team at JacksonGrant can help.
Please feel free to reach out with any questions, concerns, or feedback at