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Understanding Toxic Cultures

I had a whirlwind week, and a highlight was facilitating a fantastic panel discussion on toxic cultures at the Conference Board of Canada’s Corporate Culture Conference. This is a topic I’ve been asked to speak about a lot in the last year, and it always leads to interesting conversations after my session. It turns out that a lot of people have experienced a workplace they would describe as toxic at some point in their career.

Of course, “toxic” is a description of impact, not a diagnosis of an organization. I think it’s important to keep this distinction in mind, lest we assume that labeling it is the extent of analysis that’s required. Or, like the great philosopher Britney Spears, we decide that there’s no escape.


To me, a toxic culture is about its systems. While we experience its impact through incidents, and patterns of behaviour and interactions, it’s the underlying systems like power dynamics, politics, information flows, decision making, and rewards that produce and reproduce those incidents and behaviour.

This is important because if we focus only on the individuals (“that person is toxic”) or the incident (“they need sensitivity training”), the system won’t change. It will continue to produce toxic behavior and harmful impacts, even if you remove the individuals within the system. And vice versa, even if re-populated by kind, empathetic, and collaborative people, a toxic system will continue to produce toxic behaviours.

I am not suggesting that abusive individuals don’t exist in organizations; they absolutely and unfortunately do. But sometimes when we say someone is toxic, we might actually be observing behaviour that is symptomatic of the system. In an excellent recent post, Culture and the Real Impact of Change Agents, Celine Schillinger wrote:

“Negative, controlling, oppressive behaviors are often merely symptoms of bad systems. They do not necessarily reflect the nature nor the intent of people. Employees of all levels operate as the systems asks them to.”

Sometimes, individuals are just messy, troubled, imperfect people whose flaws strike a particularly discordant tone with our own sensitivities and insecurities.  In a toxic system, many people are just doing the best they can (which usually isn’t particularly great). When we give them a global assessment and label like ‘toxic’, we give ourselves permission to discard this possibility permanently.

In that case, labeling individuals as toxic and writing them off forever is going to be a really unhelpful strategy, because that system is predisposed to just keep producing shitty interactions between you and other people. Like if Michael had succeeded on The Good Place (but possibly with less frozen yogurt).

If the organization’s reputation is still intact it will keep hiring the best people it can find, and the system will keep nudging all of them towards destructive interactions. Sort of like a zombie apocalypse, but people become jerks instead of eating each other’s brains.

Schillinger writes:

“Also, the system is independent from the individuals who compose it. A company culture is created by multiple conversations over time that form patterns of conversations which become independent from the people having those conversations. After a while, when the culture is established, changing the people only gets limited to no effect on the company culture.”

If you’re stuck in a broken culture and can’t recognize it for what it is, then the list of people you see as being toxic and worth avoiding is going to get really long. Your righteousness will entrench, and your isolation will increase. You against the world. And then you’ll be unwittingly contributing to the toxicity of the system yourself.

As leaders or HR professionals, we can get locked into reacting to incidents in a toxic system, never getting the time or resources to address the underlying systems issues. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when we’re scrabbling through the underbrush, trying to make it to Friday so we can unclench and  remember who we really are when we’re not afraid and angry. This is how toxic systems are perpetuated.

Breaking this cycle requires us to notice patterns and dig deeper into why those patterns recur. That one little sentence makes it sound super simple, but of course it isn’t. These underlying causes can be deep-rooted, unclear, and seem to contradict what we think we know, or want to believe, about the organization we’re in, and ourselves.

Last quote from Schillinger (just go read her whole amazing post, okay?)

“I even found — even more disturbing — that sometimes *we* are the ones that enable the system to maintain itself; we are ourselves barriers to change. We don’t always realize.”

The next time we’re tempted to label someone as toxic, pause to consider if their behaviour represents a pattern, and what would have to be true to perpatuate that pattern in your company culture.

Recommended Reading (and Listening):

What PwC Learned from Its Policy of Flexible Work for Everyone – Anne Donovan, HBR

Good look at the lessons learned by PWC while implementing flexible work. As with remote working specifically (certainly an important dimension of flexible working), trust is noted as a critical part of the mindset shift needed to become a truly flexible organization.

Hat-tip to Stowe Boyd for flagging this article in his excellent daily newsletter Work Futures.

When it comes to flexibility, trust is not earned. It is not uncommon for managers to tell me that they believe in allowing employees to work flexibly, if and only when they’ve been with the firm a certain amount of time and earned that trust. This is when I remind people that we place our trust in employees from the moment they start working for us, so why wouldn’t that same theory apply when it comes to flexibility? If you trust an individual enough that you hired them to join your organization, you also should trust them to get the work done when and where they prefer, as long as they meet deadlines. I challenge all managers to take this approach.”

Department 12 Podcast – Alan Colquitt on Talent

One of many things that the big snowstorm ruined this week was my opportunity to meet Alan Colquitt at the Corporate Culture Conference. The weather prevented him from attending in person, but luckily he was able to present his session on Performance Management 2.0 remotely via Skype, and it was really great. Since I don’t think it was recorded I’m sharing this recent podcast interview he did on the same topic.

The Art of Decision-Making – Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker

I enjoyed this take on making good decisions, not least because it opens with a description of Charles Darwin’s diaries, and the pro/con list he made about getting married. Darwin, just like the rest of us.

Rotham points out that as humans, individual transformation often takes time. And that we frequently have to aspire towards being someone else that we do not yet fully understand, because we haven’t experienced that existence yet. This often requires that we relinquish the value we place on our current identity, and inhabiting a weird ‘in between’ place. I’m fascinated by this concept. I’ve always thought of these periods as ‘squiggly line’ times, and think they’re scary but very powerful.

“The trouble is that some values preclude others. An aspiring artist must reject the corporate virtues to which he once aspired and embrace creative ones in their place. If a family illness forces him to abandon his artistic plans, he may end up adrift—disenchanted with corporate life, but unable to grasp the real satisfactions of an artistic existence. To aspire, Callard writes, is to judge one’s present-day self by the standards of a future self who doesn’t yet exist. But that can leave us like a spider plant putting down roots in the air, hoping for soil that may never arrive. “

Photo by Jules D. on Unsplash

One Comment Post a comment
  1. ‘Squiggly time’ or the theory of liminality, which underlies a great deal of human ritual. See Dave Gray’s Liminal Thinking (

    February 4, 2019

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