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A PR Leader’s Guide to Toxic Positivity Versus Positivity

Published on March 7, 2023, at 3:59 p.m.
by Morgan Perkins.

Toxic positivity is disguised as positivity in the workplace, and public relations leaders can mitigate the harmful effects by actively listening to their associates. Before industry leaders can be part of the solution, they must first understand what toxic positivity is and why it exists.


Courtney Chapman Thomas, senior director of The University of Alabama’s Center for Service and Leadership, explained that positivity is a choice-based optimism, whereas toxic positivity does not acknowledge reality at all. Instead, it is an oppression of all feelings and all outlooks. Chapman Thomas noted how toxic positivity forces individuals to ignore their emotions and put on a facade in place of authentically expressing how they feel.

Empathy is also an essential emotion and is the key difference between toxic positivity and positivity, according to Laura Lemon, co-director of UA Office of Research in Science and Risk Communication Management. Toxic positivity translates to being unwilling to meet someone where they are and support them through their lived reality, she said.

“We were so negative for so long, and we finally saw the value in positivity,” Lemon stated. “However, toxic positivity may exist because the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.”


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Overcompensating with positivity can create more issues than solutions. Leaders using statements similar to “you got this” while not providing proper resources may backfire and invalidate an employee’s emotions.

Within the workplace, Lemon explained, if communication is not meaningful, then it is going to negatively impact the organization’s culture because it comes across as dismissive of an employee’s lived reality. Toxic positivity can also correlate to decreased engagement from an employee because employees feel unheard and misunderstood.

Chapman Thomas discussed how toxic positivity can prevent an individual from growing.

“It is the hard stuff that causes us to discover our values, skills and strengths to get to the other side,” Chapman Thomas said. “Toxic positivity is more harmful than negativity because at least negativity is a real emotion.”

LinkedIn blog post by Lora Korpar touched on how burnout and toxic positivity can create a continuous loop where one is

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feeding back into the other. The loop is hazardous because it causes employees to display unauthentic emotions to avoid consequences. One of the key takeaways from this post is that a work environment must be accepting of the flaws and flourishes of its organization and its employees to be prosperous.


In the public relations industry, there are often uncontrollable circumstances that practitioners must navigate. Strong leaders understand the difference between toxic positivity and authentic positivity to best manage their team when obstacles arise.

Leaders may not fully understand how they are contributing to toxic positivity or enabling the issue for their team or department. There is a learning opportunity for industry leaders to understand how their followers feel and how they prefer to be led.

Karla Gower, director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, shared that an individual’s leadership style should change based on who they are working with and the environment. “If leaders are not sensitive to what their followers need and want, they might be misled on when to use positivity,” Gower said.

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Gower noted how emotional intelligence and active listening skills are two traits that equip leaders to recognize and counteract toxic positivity. Listening with the intent to implement changes is vital to ensure that toxic positivity does not manifest and grow. To avoid overcompensating with positivity after providing constructive feedback, Gower suggested asking each individual how they prefer to receive assessments.

Forbes also provided simple statements and questions that can help guide these conversations and validate an employee’s emotions. For example, the article suggests saying, “Your feelings make sense. What can I do to help support you through this?” when an employee is dealing with a hardship.

As the public relations industry continues to increase in value, leaders must continue to increase their self-awareness. “Leaders need to examine the people they are leading and acknowledge that they lead and develop a whole person,” Chapman Thomas said. Reflection is key to evaluating if a leader is fostering the proper environment for employees to create strategic, meaningful work for clients.

Lemon described her advocacy for the internal audience, which is often forgotten or the second priority to management. “If an organization does not care for its employees, it cannot cater to its clients successfully. We make assumptions too often and diminish their lived experiences by treating them like assets on a balance sheet. A strong leader does not diminish the value of their employees,” Lemon said.

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The public relations industry cannot effectively impact and influence others if its leaders are not putting their people first. PR managers preventing toxic positivity within their organizations can lead to the largest impact on the work employees produce. People are at the heart of the industry and provide tangible assets to impress clients; however, the success of these assets depends on the people behind them being properly encouraged.

Public relations leaders can no longer be blinded by toxic positivity camouflaged as positivity.

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