Updated: Nov 27
Two months ago, I underwent major surgery, the kind that puts you in the operating room for seven hours straight and requires two different types of specialist surgeons. Feeling anxious, I decided to turn to my community for support. I sent them the time and date of my surgery, shared that I was nervous, and asked them to send thoughts of health and healing at that time. I was touched by the flood of lovely well-meaning comments I received. Yet at the same time, I noticed a number of them, while certainly well-intentioned, encouraged me to deny, minimize, or avoid my feelings of fear or concern:
“You shouldn’t worry. Think positive. It’s going to go great!”
“Anxiety isn’t good for your body. Remember, you need to keep thinking positive. Positive thoughts only.”
“It’s going to go perfectly. You’ll finally have a resolution to your symptoms. Don’t worry. You need to believe in the power of positivity.”
As much of these good-willed statements came from a place of caring, I found myself feeling confused. You see, even though I was about to undergo a really complicated procedure, I was feeling optimistic and confident in my surgeons. However, along with that optimism, was a bit of fear and anxiety. For most of us, knowing that we’re going to be rendered fully unconscious and dependent on a machine to maintain breathing while being cut open would likely trigger the common human emotion of anxiety. So why were some of my friends encouraging me not to feel this emotion?
This experience caused me to reflect on a general trend of positivity that is filling our social media feeds. We can easily see words on our screens stating things such as:
“Good vibes only.”
“No Negativity Allowed here.”
These are all examples of toxic positivity, which occurs when we attempt to override the actual emotions or authentic experiences about a situation and replace them with ‘feel good’ emotions only. This idea of wholeheartedly rejecting or avoiding anything that may trigger something other than ‘positive’ emotions sounds pretty great, right? Shouldn’t it help to keep up morale when we’re hit with a tough project or circumstance at work? Don’t we all need to think on the bright side in order to be more productive and creative? Aren’t creative ideas hatched from positively imagining a future of unending possibility? Not so fast…
The relationship between positive thinking, creativity, and productivity is a lot trickier than simply thinking positive or negative. In fact, research shows us that the avoidance of hardship or difficulty can in itself lead to more struggle. Additionally, studies have found that chasing happiness is linked to obsessing over any not-happy feelings, ultimately bringing on increased unhappiness as well.
How is toxic positivity harmful to creativity?
Just as anything done in excess, disallowing the presence or existence of certain feelings through denial or minimization is casting a shadow over our authentic experiences as human beings.
Not only can his harm our chances for deep connection, but it can also have serious consequences for work environments that are looking to foster creativity efforts.
When we lean too heavily into the ‘toxic positivity’ trap, we can easily miss and even sometimes, completely deny seeing important pain points and problems--the very things we need to be looking at through accurate lenses.
In essence, toxic positivity unnaturally pushes us to be a glass-half-full person, when in reality, being either a ‘glass-half-full’ or a ‘glass-half-empty’ person is not ideal for fostering creativity towards novel solutions. Rather, it is important to be able to see the entire cup for what it is.
Research shows that accepting, not rejecting, our negative emotions actually helps us better defuse them and leads to fewer negative emotions over time. The same is true for innovation efforts, the more you can see the whole picture, the more you will be empowered to take appropriate action to address the problem you’re attempting to build solutions for.
Let me illustrate this further by sharing with you some major ways in which toxic positivity can kill creative efforts at your organization.
Three ways that toxic positivity can ruin creative efforts at your company:
1. Toxic positivity limits opportunity for creative tension
“If you’re to create something powerful and important, you must at the very least be driven by an equally powerful inner force.” -Ryan Holiday
Dissatisfaction is a powerful motivator. Feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction with the status quo is what has driven so many great leaders to create change and new solutions that have helped move the human race forward.
What would the world look like if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had just worked on accepting being positive despite the immense inequality and injustice that he and his fellow citizens were experiencing? What if Henry Ford simply avoiding feeling any annoyance about how the transportation industry was operating in his time? If you simply take a moment to reflect on great change-makers and innovators in our history, it isn’t hard to see that what many of them accomplished was spawned through dissatisfaction that resulted in the important process of creative tension.
Creative tension is widely recognized as what drives us to facilitate creativity and change. Creative tension is built when you take your dissatisfaction with you or your customer’s currently reality, and in response, articulate an alternative vision of the future. It is within the gap between the status quo and your vision that creates just the right amount of energetic tension to fuel the desire in you to seek to resolve it. Unfortunately, when you buy into the notion of toxic positivity and try to minimize, deny, or avoid the downsides of your product or experience, you ultimately reduce creative tension and thereby risk choosing irrelevant strategies. Think of creative tension as strings on a guitar: Too strong of tension (i.e. focusing only on the downsides) results in tight strings that can break under pressure. Too little tension (i.e. focusing only on the upsides) results in loose strings that can’t create music. Just the right amount of tension (i.e. seeing both the current pain points and an improved future vision) allows you to play beautiful music:
If you perpetuate a culture where productive dissent or disagreement isn’t viewed as a part of the creative process, you can easily end up with a solution that falls flat.
2. Toxic positivity stifles deep customer empathy
“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.” -Auguste Rodin
A major aspect of design thinking is working to harness empathy in order to gain a deeper understanding of your customer, where dissatisfaction or pain points are, and how they are currently navigating your current product or experience. In other words, you are using empathy to see the whole picture as clearly and accurately as possible from your customer’s vantage point. It is from this data and these insights that you can gain information to develop innovative solutions that can ultimately up-level their experience.
It is important to note that customer empathy is a two-step process. The first step requires anything but toxic positivity—you need to listen, understand, and feel the pain or delight of the individual even before they evolve as a customer. The ideal result in this first step is to have a visceral feeling of truly relating and understanding the journey of the individual. Not until you have completed this first step can you then begin to work to integrate these learnings into potential solutions. It is through empathy that the creative process is fueled.
Toxic positivity gets in the way of creating an outstanding and inclusive customer experience regardless of what you may be trying to create because it prevents true empathy from taking place. For example, we cannot discover new and innovative ways to address diversity, equity, and inclusion problems in many organizations unless we acknowledge that they exist. But not only this, we need to understand the deep pain points underlying this subpar system by walking the same path underrepresented employees are taking: living their dissatisfaction, their pain, feeling their needs, and deeply understanding solutions that will work. From this vantage point, it isn’t hard to see why the best products or customer experiences are often built by the people who are creating solutions for their own challenges, as long as they’re able to acknowledge them and stay away from over-rotating on positivity.
3. Toxic positivity shuts down psychological safety
“The most dangerous idea is silencing people.” -Naval Ravikant
Let’s face it. We’re human beings first. And with being human, comes shared common experiences of failure, love, heartbreak, joy, and pain. And while not all of these emotions aren’t pleasant or enjoyable, they’re extremely important because it is through these feelings that we share in common humanity. In other words, no matter how different we are from one another, we all experience certain emotions along the journey of life—it is what makes us connected. For example, many of us can listen to a song about loss and all share in knowing what that experience is like. Unfortunately, toxic positivity tells us that anything but positive feelings and reactions to ideas or opinions are unsafe and unwarranted, “There’s no room for you here! You’re being buzzkill for our really cool idea. We don’t want your differing opinion. You’re so negative.” This type of messaging stifles important opportunities for real, candid, and authentic conversation—the kind of dialog that requires interpersonal risk-taking—the very thing that is dependent on recognizing we all share in our common humanity.
Psychological Safety, coined by Amy Edmondson, has been found to be one the biggest predictors of innovation and creativity in teams. However, it requires that the group is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, or in other words, people in the group feel that can speak up, politely disagree, or offer a dissenting opinion without fear of being shut down. In contrast, toxic positivity sends a subtle but clear message that there’s no space for anything but positivity. There’s no space for the hard stuff, the real conversations, the respectful disagreements. Toxic positivity can also invalidate personal opinions, causing team members to cover their true thoughts and opinions, and potentially leaving them feeling alone and isolated.
When psychological safety isn’t fostered, groupthink can easily take over. Groupthink, coined by Psychologist Janis Irving, is the psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in decision-making groups. Of course, groupthink has its advantages: everyone feels comfortable, there’s no risk of tension among members, and it’s easy. Unfortunately, it can also contaminate the interpersonal conditions needed for creativity and innovation.
Creativity Wanted: Emotions Required
Perhaps one of the most amazing and beautiful things about our makeup as human beings is that we were created with emotions for a reason.
Emotions are a design feature of our DNA—they function to provide us with incredibly useful information.
When we feel pain, we know something is off. Correspondingly, when we feel alive and full, we know we’re acting in alignment with our values. This being said, I challenge you to stop thinking of emotions as fitting into either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ categories, and instead, to think about the critical data points for a wide array of creative solution efforts. Let’s let go of toxic positivity. Let’s compassionately tell our colleagues when we see an alternate path, let’s work to truly listen to the valuable emotional response data we are receiving when our customers, our employees, our colleagues, and our teammates are communicating it, and let’s lean into the creative tension that dissatisfaction can foster. Ironically, we will ultimately create more ‘positive’ outcomes and solutions if we steer clear of the toxic positivity trap.
- Toxic Positivity occurs when we attempt to override the actual emotions or authentic experiences about a situation and replace them with 'feel good' emotions only.
- The relationship between positive thinking, creativity, and productivity is a lot trickier than simply thinking positive or negative.
-Research has found that the avoidance of hardship can in itself lead to more struggle and that chasing happiness ultimately brings on increased unhappiness.
-When we lean too heavily into the toxic positivity trap, we can easily miss seeing important pain points.
-Toxic positivity can ruin creative efforts at your company in 3 major ways:
1. Toxic positivity limits the opportunity for creative tension.
2. Toxic positivity stifles deep customer empathy.
3. Toxic positivity shuts down psychological safety.
-Emotions are a design feature of our DNA, we are built with them for a reason. Denying them can come a big cost to ourselves and our creative efforts.
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