How do workplaces become toxic?
Around mid-morning on a Monday, my boss’s boss asked me to step into her office. I found my direct boss sitting there sullen-faced while her boss—the Program Director—walked around to sit behind the desk. She sat down. Then she said that I had until the end of the day to resign or I would be fired.
This was looking like a bad week. On the bright side, at least it’d be a short one.
My boss, who’d always been a champion, said nothing. The Director tried to maintain the high ground by saying I was early in my career and surely would learn from “this experience”. There was no mention of what “this experience” was because we all knew what happened: I made the Director look bad.
This was quite a turnaround from two weeks prior when my boss had delivered my 360 review (it was glowing) and a few days earlier when the Director had offered me a formal promotion. Except that the promotion was for a job that I’d been unofficially doing for six months already, minus all the things I’d asked for that would’ve made it possible for me to do the job effectively (in particular: title clarification and official responsibility for all the areas I had already been leading, because our program partners had repeatedly expressed confusion over who was in charge of what).
When I declined the promotion, I re-iterated why I’d asked for those things. I noted that I’d rather go back to the job I’d been hired for than continue to work in an uncertain limbo.
But I wrote that in a “reply all” email. Should I have delivered that response discretely to the Director, instead of keeping several colleagues CC’ed on the email? Sure. But I was tired of not being heard.
She was right that I would learn from the experience, but not in the way she was thinking. Because three months later, as I was working for a new organization half a continent away, I opened my inbox to find three separate LinkedIn requests from former colleagues at that old job. Huh, I thought.
A few minutes later, an email from one of my former direct reports made it clear: the program funding had been pulled. They had two months to wind down and then everyone would be out of a job.
I never found out exactly what happened, but I could read the contours of the story from what I’d seen before I left. The teams weren’t functioning well across departments: certain directors had carved out fiefdoms for themselves, and were more interested in protecting their territory than in working with colleagues in other departments. Leadership was more worried about what the donor thought than what the programs achieved. Micro-managing was rampant. More than once, I’d seen a senior team member angrily yell at colleagues in a meeting, without facing any consequences or even feeling a need to apologize.
Today, looking back, I’d call that a toxic workplace. Toxic workplaces lead to bad work—including bad partner management. And no matter how much the Program Director might have focused on keeping the donor happy, the program was too big for that kind of disorder. The cracks had started to show.
But I use the word “toxic” cautiously, for two reasons. First, because it feels too definitive. It glosses over the good work that was being done, where some teams gelled around the broader mission and connected with community needs. Calling it “toxic” feels like it erases those achievements.
I also hesitate to use the T-word because I had found myself in a management position (albeit a low-level one) within that structure: if the workplace was toxic, then I was part of it.
These are not good reasons to avoid the T-word. But they’re good reasons to inject some nuance. Workplaces are not merely toxic-or-not-toxic. There’s a spectrum. I haven’t found a good framework for this, so I made one up: nurturing, supportive, neutral, draining, toxic.
Here’s how I characterize this range of cultures:
- Nurturing cultures actively engage and enliven the people who work there. They might actually make you a better person. They support all three components of Daniel Pink’s Drive framework: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These cultures are so rare that people say “I never knew work could be like this!” when they first encounter one.
- Supportive cultures are a notch down, but sometimes that’s okay. They enable us to do our work, collaborate effectively with colleagues, and grow. Most critically: they don’t actively harm us.
- Neutral cultures are exactly what they sound like: meh. They’re the places that folks describe as “not having much of a culture”. For a big bureaucracy, neutral might be the best you can hope for.
- Draining cultures are the ones we might hesitate to call toxic but which are still pretty bad. Big bureaucracies can easily become draining, but so can “agile” startups that burn people out in their pursuit of “innovation”.
- Toxic cultures don’t just drain you: they poison you. They send you home at the end of the day as a worse person than you were before: scarred, anxious, angry. Toxic cultures often have a dangerous mix of micro-management, micro-aggressions, ethical violations, harassment, and back-stabbing.
Across this spectrum, there are many ways to be in each area. A startup can have a fast-paced supportive culture or a fast-paced toxic one. An academic department or think tank can have a slow-paced supportive or even nurturing culture, or it can have a cutthroat toxic atmosphere. This is just one dimension: I think every work culture fits on this spectrum, but that doesn’t mean two cultures that are in the same slot are identical.
Still, I want to use this framework to share a few things I’ve learned over years of conversations with colleagues and facilitation with clients facing workplace culture challenges.
1. More nurturing cultures lead to better work. Toxic cultures lead to worse work, staff exits, and ethical breaches.
There’s a favorite phrase of thought-leader types that’s usually attributed to Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” But that seems awfully aggressive, so I prefer a variation: “Strategy is downstream from culture”—which nicely emphasizes that if you have a toxic culture, then like a real waste site, it will flow downstream into your strategy.
At the end of the day, an organization is people. There are some legal arrangements and proprietary technologies and branding and such. But the people are at the core. So what an organization creates depends on its people. And people create better in a better environment.
It’s really that simple.
But if you want to get more complicated about it: People can’t get the information needed to make good decisions if they aren’t communicating well with one another. People can’t focus attention on decisions if they’re nervous about how they’ll be criticized later, or if they’re thinking about internal politicking. And they won’t care about making better decisions if they see others putting personal interests ahead of the organization’s mission or goals.
In the worst version of this, leaders convince themselves that the toxic elements of their culture are actually beneficial. Cutthroat competition, unsustainable working hours, even ethically dubious choices? “All part of what makes us great” think some so-called leaders.
That kind of culture will catch up with you. Though perhaps not before the damage is done.
In an effort to better understand the “Great Resignation”, Donald Sull (management professor and author of Simple Rules), Charlie Sull, and Ben Zweig analyzed Glassdoor reviews comparing within-sector differences in attrition rates with what employees were saying about the companies on Glassdoor. They found toxic culture was a bigger driver of resignations than compensation: by a factor of 10. They break down toxic culture into three components: failures on diversity, equity, and inclusion; disrespect; and unethical behavior.
The main point I draw from this is that people flee toxic cultures.
It gets even worse: toxicity seems to be linked with unethical behavior, which can bring clear risks to an organization’s mission, reputation, and finances.
This is a problem in any sector, but it’s especially hypocritical in the world of nonprofits, foundations, and others aiming to create social change. We’ve seen several high-profile examples in recent years, including:
- Amnesty International: two staff suicides sparked an external review, followed by executive resignations and incalculable damage to the organization’s credibility on protecting human rights.
- Save the Children UK: sexual harassment complaints against the CEO and another top executive weren’t addressed until they became public—and after the CEO had moved on to another high-profile job with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF); an inquiry later noted the “corrosive” culture.
- Silicon Valley Community Foundation: the CEO repeatedly ignored complaints of bullying by a top fundraiser, eventually costing the foundation over $1.4-million in severance and legal costs.
- Crisis Text Line: the founding CEO was ousted in 2020 after staff walk-outs over a toxic and abusive culture; then, separately, it was revealed earlier this year that Crisis Text Line was sharing user data from its mental health support service with a for-profit spinoff.
- The Appeal: a criminal justice-focused nonprofit newsroom was almost shut down due to conflicts over toxic leadership (see here for a more detailed story and here for lessons for funders), though it is seeing a rebirth as a worker-led nonprofit.
These are just a few examples that have made headline news. How many more stories are there that we don’t hear? What untold damage is being done to the mental and physical health of people working for change, and to our collective ability to make a better world?
But if toxic cultures are so damaging, then why doesn’t every organization focus everything they can on creating a (more) nurturing culture? There are two reasons. First, because…
2. Work culture is nested: it flows from macro-culture, and it has micro-cultures.
Organizations have limited influence over their cultures. It’s not a set of dials they can fine-tune into precise configurations. In fact, there’s very little that organizational leaders can do to directly and immediately influence culture for a simple reason: culture is a stock, not a flow.
In systems thinking, stocks are something that’s built up (or depleted) over time, based on what flows in and out. So wealth is a stock, income is a flow. A lake is a stock, while the rivers leading in/out and the rain are flows.
Culture is the set of expectations, norms, and habits that a group of people have built up over time. The flow that builds this stock is what the group experiences: what they hear, what they do, what they see others do. This makes culture design hard, because anything you say or do to influence a culture is just one drop in the stock of experiences. That’s why organizational culture design often involves rituals: deliberately repeating behaviors imbued with significance to create a stock of shared experiences.
However, if that stock has already been filled over time with toxic experiences, then it’s going to take a lot to replace those. You can’t change a toxic culture overnight.
It gets worse though: people’s experiences start long before they show up at work. We bring expectations and habits from past employers, from our personal lives, from our commute—these flow into our work cultures. Because we live in a society that normalizes racism and misogyny, those flow into our work cultures too.
The reason work cultures can be unique within that context is that working together involves sharing a lot of experiences with a small group of people. That’s also why teams or departments have micro-cultures.
But let’s come back to the Sulls/Zweig analysis of the “Great Resignation”: if there are lots of resignations happening across sectors, and if those resignations are driven (at least in part) by toxic work cultures, then you have to wonder how so many work cultures got toxic all at once. One big coincidence? Did 5G cause this? Is Mercury in retrograde?
You don’t need conspiracy theories to see something bigger and worse happening at a macro level. The White House and others have called this a “national mental health crisis”, stemming in part from the collective trauma of the pandemic. I’ve been feeling this as a struggle to be present. For some, it manifests in more extreme ways, like alcohol abuse, unsafe driving, and domestic violence, all of which have spiked in the last two years.
I don’t have evidence that this societal toxicity flows into workplace cultures—but how could it not? If every overwhelming experience in our lives is making us shorter-tempered, less empathetic, narrower-minded, more distracted, and worse, then it would take some overwhelming counterweight of experiences to build a nurturing corporate or organizational culture within that context. Some structural changes in how people work and move through their careers can help: Sulls/Zweig’s analysis points to lateral job opportunities, remote work opportunities, and (especially relevant for service workers) predictable schedules. While we might joke about forced mingling at corporate-sponsored social events, having space to connect with your colleagues as humans can help too.
But these are mostly about helping individual companies “win” the war for talent against competitors. What good is that if the drivers of toxicity are exogenous to your sector? The metaphor of deck chairs on the Titanic seems inadequate.
We have the society-wide version of a massive chemical spill, but we’re treating it like everyone just mysteriously got cancer at the same time.
This is a macro problem needing at least some macro solutions. It’s bigger than your organization. Even at the micro level, there’s often a big factor that either limits or enables nurturing cultures, and it’s the other reason why organizations don’t put everything they can into creating nurturing cultures: toxic culture usually stems from toxic leadership.
3. Culture reflects leadership.
Who is responsible for an organization’s culture? We have to strike a balance here. The examples I listed above all involve both toxic leadership and toxic culture—they correlate, and there’s some causation, but they aren’t the same thing.
Organizational leaders have a lot of responsibility for culture because they control much of what people experience at an organization. They shape when and how people work, the rhythms and rituals of meetings or other shared activities, what company-wide communications go out, what people are held accountable for and how.
So let’s define toxic leadership as leadership that moves the culture (through the experiences it adds to the stock) toward the toxic end of the spectrum. You could add a toxic leader into a nurturing culture and end up with a merely neutral culture—not something we’d call full blown toxic. Though it might edge closer that way over time. And leadership, like culture, deserves some nuance: some negative forms of leadership are merely draining, not toxic.
Given the damaging effects of toxic culture, you have to wonder how toxic leadership could possibly thrive. Unfortunately, too much of what passes for leadership today is characterized by the phrase: “kiss up and shit down”. How many of us have seen someone who treats those “above” them in the hierarchy with far more respect and consideration than they afford to those “below” them?
Some leaders even thrive (in a weird, twisted way) in those environments. They pit subordinates against one another or undercut star performers to solidify their own power: by creating chaos, they get to be the ultimate decider. They use classic abuser tactics, like repeatedly cutting someone down but then giving just enough praise that subordinates think they can earn a special opportunity.
Most importantly, they leverage the support they have from those “above” them: in most examples of toxic culture, toxic leadership at the CEO or Executive Director level is enabled by a board or funders or others who, at best, have turned a blind eye. When a big news story breaks about toxic leadership, harassment, or worse, the board always claims it had no idea despite the problems being widely understood among employees. Why? Because the leadership had learned how to keep the people above them happy, with little regard for the people below them.
This is as true at a foundation as it is at a place like Theranos or WeWork. It’s even easier to accomplish when the board or funders are focused on narrow measures of success—stock price, funding raised, user growth—rather than a more holistic understanding of an organization’s impacts.
But while we can pin some blame on leadership…
4. We’re all part of propagating organizational culture, even if we don’t all have equal power over it.
Individual leaders don’t control culture (again, not a set of dials). We all have influence on the experiences of those around us. And many people try, even in a toxic culture, to be a source of nurturing support for their teams and colleagues. On the other hand, some are sources of toxicity in otherwise nurturing cultures.
The hardest thing about discussing toxicity in culture is that we all absorb and reflect what’s around us. If a colleague is mean to us, we’re more likely to be mean to the next person. If the director micromanages my work, then I’m more likely to micromanage the people working for me—not just due to the power of example, but because a micromanaging supervisor is often getting excessively involved in specifics all the way down the chain.
This recent tweet from Adam Grant (an organizational psychologist, business school prof, TED-talk kind of guy) made its way into my feed. He’s broadly right. But there are many parts of an organization that aren’t the top or the bottom. Most of us spend most of our careers somewhere in the middle. From the middle, we face more choices about which aspects of the culture we propagate and which we try to shift.
I’ve been on the other side of that conversation I described up top, telling someone they were out of a job or hearing that they’d decided to move on because of problems that ultimately weren’t their fault. Sometimes it was because a draining or toxic culture had burnt them out and we’d failed to make space for them to recover. Other times it was because they’d become an amplifier of toxicity themselves.
I don’t think my management style has ever been experienced as source of toxicity. But how would I know? On several occasions I’ve very consciously sought to pull a neutral, draining, or toxic culture toward being more nurturing. Sometimes you can’t do that without potentially upsetting someone, because the truth is that some people benefit from the toxicity.
Which brings me to the last big thing I’ve learned…
5. Organizations resist change with both passive inertia and active antibodies.
When offered the choice to resign or be fired, I decided not to respond on the spot. I left the room and contacted human resources. Oh how naive I was.
I’ll pause here to say that HR is the most critical and underrated function in most organizations. Good HR teams can mean everything to an organization’s people, culture, and mission.
But in many large organizations, HR exists to serve the organization’s interests—not to protect the employee. I’d heard this before but hadn’t fully internalized it. Like so many, I was sure our HR department would be different. Like so many, I was wrong. When I described my situation, they couldn’t say whether it made sense to fire someone immediately after offering them a promotion, but they said it was the Program Director’s decision. When I described the program’s overall problems, I didn’t get much response at all.
My friend Anna Levy has interviewed people facing far worse workplace harms (including fraud, violence, and discrimination) as part of her research into dissent and whistleblowing in international organizations. She mapped the strategies they used in expressing dissent, and how their organizations responded.
Dissenters face a range of reprisals and punitive actions, like non-renewal of contracts, retaliatory investigations, unfavorable transfers, and gaslighting about whether there was really a problem at all. Levy documents this range of responses in detail—trigger warning: you might recognize your past experiences in her report.
I tend to think about organizational responses in two broad categories: passive inertia and active antibodies. Inertia is just the law of physics that says most things (people, organizations, rocks, whatever) tend to not change course. We have to allow that some of an organization’s failure to respond to dissent just a preference to not respond to anything at all.
But active antibodies are something else entirely. Levy documents them clearly. Organizations wield various levers to squash dissent. In fact, because toxic leaders thrive on the “kiss up, shit down” approach, it’s not surprising that organizational levers get appropriated for maintaining a toxic culture: a toxic leader will use whatever power they have to maintain that power.
Let’s recap these five points:
- More nurturing cultures lead to better work. Toxic cultures lead to worse work, staff exits, and ethical breaches.
- Work culture is nested: it flows from macro-culture, and it has micro-cultures.
- Culture reflects leadership.
- We’re all part of propagating organizational culture, even if we don’t all have equal power over it.
- Organizations resist change with both passive inertia and active antibodies.
This all points to a bleak conclusion: there are big, macro-level drivers creating very real micro-level harms to individuals’ health, well-being, economic security, and career aspirations—which in turn has macro-level effects as all of our organizations and companies are going to do worse work. How do we break out of that vicious cycle?
There are micro-level responses that can help your organization be “best in class”: better hiring, especially at the leadership level; more growth opportunities; more control and predictability over your work; more opportunities for staff leadership and channels for dissent. These are all good things. But they have limited value in the broader context.
There are also structural changes to organizations that I suspect can lead to better cultures. Unions are seeing a surge in interest, especially in the wake of recent successful unionization of an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island. Cooperatives provide an even more direct form of ownership. In the right contexts, these structures can help with points #4 and #5 above: giving the people most impacted by the culture greater influence over it, and creating channels for positive culture change.
But we’re still left with the nested aspects of workplace culture: it flows from societal culture, which is deeply broken. That’s unfortunately a longer, slower slog of a work. It means fixing or replacing broken institutions, and changing a political system that gets us leaders who struggle to make good decisions (or worse: are incentivized to make bad ones). It means dramatically different approaches by the tech platforms that thrive on toxicity, amplifying it into our homes, our communities, and our workplaces.
What gives me hope in this vicious cycle is that I think more people with economic and corporate power see that they can’t build an island of effective culture in a stormy sea. They can’t “win” in their sector when the whole world is losing. Maybe that will change the way they engage in politics, and maybe (maybe) a few more of them will start being allies in fixing the broader system.