Toxic Environments – and why you need to leave them.

Even as a TECH NAVIGATOR discussing transformation on a larger scale, it’s important to take the time to talk about culture: today, about toxic working environments.

First of all, what is „toxic“? And what does, for instance, „command & control“ or „micro-management“ have to do with it? In this reflection, we will use the word „toxic“ for settings that have one or more of the following attributes: non-nourishing, draining, disrespectful, exploiting, abusive, exposing, overreaching, exerting unreasonable pressure, bullying, punitive, … The list goes on. Identifying abusive patterns is an important step to creating awareness, hopefully opening the door for change.

Some of what I’m describing here I’ve either experienced first-hand, been indirectly exposed to, or I’ve helped mentees to get through. Don’t get me wrong: as personal as it gets – some situations beyond mitigation options have to land on the desk of compliance officers, workers union reps, or need to be escalated externally. But in the end, it always gets personal. This is what this guide is about: creating awareness and a sense that there is always an option. Ask for help. Try not to accept toxic situations as fate. Though easier said than done, please keep in mind: you are the most important person in your life. You have all the right to live and work in dignity.

Where do we find toxic environments?

Toxic working environments can be found everywhere. There is no specific industry, team constellation, or cultural setting that must produce toxicity. But there are factors that can foster, catalyze, or enhance a toxic predisposition – such as male dominated, strict hierarchical, non-inclusive settings. KPI-driven, time-fixed, and/or accuracy- and safety-dependent industries might also be over-proportionately prone to a higher degree of toxic dynamics. Again, even in these industries toxicity is not a must – healthy, nourishing, and positive working relationships are possible. So why do we still find toxicity in various degrees around us?

To be fair, none of the toxic environments we may have experienced are the same. Everybody has likely had individual and very personal experiences – and everyone has had their own way to process, cope, and (hopefully) overcome these moments in their career. But these settings usually have one thing in common: they ultimately all require immediate and very decisive measures – when these settings can’t be radically turned around, they must be exited. This is not a question of incremental improvement or reform. It’s very often a question of protecting one’s own health.

And another thing that they usually have in common: toxic settings fear transparency. Unfolding and exposing the inner workings in these environments is like turning on the light bulb in a dark room. Very often revealing exploitational dependencies, unspoken contracts, complicity, or collective cover-ups – a machine without a soul, serving a single interest. Not yours, if you have the short end of the stick. And if complicity is an elemental component, exits are even harder for individuals, the longer they play along. Exposure is almost impossible if everybody has something to lose. That is why many of these organizations, teams, or groups built around toxicity are reluctant towards compliance and governance frameworks.

But how do these systems work? Here, too, we find many different flavors, none like the other. But one might recognize one or more of following giveaways:

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Key Identifiers for Toxicity

There are some telltale signs for toxicity in an organization. As each organization is different and the composition of staff and group dynamics may vary, the key identifiers may be hard to spot or will manifest in various ways. The same applies for industries, business models, and organizational structures. Some key identifiers may include:

  • Internal Sales Megaphone
  • „Us and Them“ Narratives
  • Paranoia Culture
  • Drink the Kool-Aid
  • Failure Intolerance
  • Fear Tactics
  • Micro-Management
  • Command & Control
  • Nontransparency by Design

Internal Sales Megaphone: Always On

Blasting inward, there is a strong and constant sales narrative that doesn’t allow critical reflection. Everything is top, the product, brand, company, or management is infallible, the light at the end of tunnel is near (next month, next quarter, …), all we need is to bite our teeth together, fake it until you make it, growth is seemingly constant, we are fundamentally and unstoppably successful even if factual sales, performance, market data show otherwise. This narrative has nothing to do with internal branding or a healthy, and even emotional identification with the company, its products, or your team. Healthy identification is something done voluntarily. Internal selling, though, is something prescribed top-down. It will eventually cascade downwards, with everyone required to adhere and sing along. Which in itself will create another internal, peer-driven control mechanism. This sales narrative is completely independent from actual sales figures – reminding us of Wirecard, for instance. It is like riding the wave within an organization, everyone is there to boost the hype, often referred to in Germany as “Tschakka” attitude. A term coined by Dutch motivational trainer Emile Ratelband, combined with widely critically viewed simplistic “you can do it” slogans. What may start as motivational fun can end as a slippery slope if there is no governance in place.

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Us and Them“ Narratives: Separating the Good from the Bad

„Even bad actions have good intentions“, as I learned in one of my early leadership training workshops. It was an entry way to empathically understand presumed adversaries. Important, when trying to uncover the motifs of ‚destructive actors‘ in your surroundings and exploring options to mitigate conflicts. But good intentions are not a guarantee for productive and healthy results. Here is where the narratives to „us and them“ may start: we all want to be on the good side. We’re the good guys. The only good guys. That’s what most of us would say of themselves, right? We all want to belong to the good folk. Bickering at the water-cooler about the other departments again? This herd bonding is an easy leverage to create an internal bonding that will eventually externalize anything that doesn’t fit the narrative. Marginalizing critical voices, constantly repeating the internal brand mantra, will ultimately build a wall around the group or organization that will be hard to overcome. In psychology, there is this process of individuals falling into group narrative traps by emotional investment, similar to warped conspiracy theories or extremist movements: the more a person invests into a belief system the harder it is to leave. „Investments“ are time, money, or resources spent – or like in extreme cases, including cutting off relationships to friends and family. „I can’t get out; I’ve got too much to lose“.

Paranoia Culture: Traitors are Everywhere

Those who are not 100% behind the internal narrative may be branded as defectors. Critical voices are highly dangerous for these fragile constructions. Paranoia Culture. Just like a balloon or soap: the larger the bubble, the larger the surface tension and risk of popping. Critical voices need to be weeded out early. As fresh people are constantly ingested into the system, they buy into the external sales pitch, are often initially impressed by a multitude of activities, other colleagues (not knowing they, too, are often new to the system themselves) – causing a wave of hype, and naturally unaware of the internal dynamics. This will unavoidably lead to high churn rates. I’ve seen this unfortunately with a few startups and NGOs. But even corporates are not immune. To help stabilize, Command & Control and Micro-Management systems quickly evolve into self-sustaining modes of operation that need a high level of internal control mechanisms, punitive measures, and can quickly lead to suppressive environments, with side-effects, e.g., neglect of workers rights, safety guidelines, data privacy, and at times even overreaching into team members’ private lives.

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Drink the Kool-Aid: Believe the Story

Internal branding is important – as long as it carries purpose and meaning. But in itself, it is an important facilitator for employee identification. As Javier Sanchez Lamelas, former VP Marketing at the Coca-Cola Company, laid out in his book „Marketing Beliefs“, identification with a brand is comparable to the process of falling in love. There are hardly any stronger incentives than loving something. As we will forgo any rational reasoning, emotional motivation for the team will make employees go the extra mile. And as anything, levers and tools like these can be used for the good – or the bad.

In any healthy working environment, I would expect internal messages to encourage, support, and empower employees. Putting their skills and talents to the foreground, what they have achieved and can be proud of, interwoven with positive and tangible leadership examples, building trust and strengthening internal relationships. This at its best, of course, embedded in a framework of purpose-driven business producing value and relevance for employees, the company, their communities, customers, and society alike.

Flipping to the dark side, drinking the Kool-Aid could mean not allowing critical voices questioning the purpose of a mission, product, or service. Strict narratives, internal speech guidelines, building blocks for answering critical questions and „catching“ inquisitive explorations can be a telltale sign for toxic employee communication. Other signs can include:

  • External news labeled as fake or critical press coverage as biased and unfair
  • Critical voices being marginalized, bullied, or pushed out (often with scapegoating narratives for the remaining team)
  • Ongoing, never-ending rallying up the troops for fictitious wars, battles, or constant imminent external and even internal threats

As we are all human, one may experience a slowly degrading own moral compass. It starts with little inaccuracies, blurry „facts“, tweaking sales figures, polishing data, testing the prescribed communication narrative with colleagues, family, and friends. It can also lead to competition between colleagues who is the better adept.

It is then easy to bloat balance sheets, exaggerate customer nos. or fake memberships – the slippery slope begins… Inventing offices, declaring sales regions by pointing your finger on the map or coloring whole continents to purposely insinuate a (potentially non-existent) market coverage, having a single person in a „remote“ and regionally disconnected office… say, declaring a fully operational branch in North America with its single employee sitting in Sweden. Presenting the world map to potential customers can appear truly impressive. And in times of COVID, it is much easier to sell decentralized market management.

Failure Intolerance: Perfection is Punishing

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People make mistakes. Mistakes are an integral part of learning. Without mistakes there is no improvement, no progress – even evolution in nature is built on a long series of „failures“. The building blocks for resilient systems and organizations are made of learnings. On the other hand, an organization that doesn’t appreciate critical reflection, ‚lessons learned‘ reviews, mutual help and support, continuous learning and training journeys, won’t be able to evolve and adapt. Failure intolerance will ultimately just replicate previous structures. No one will want to stand out, take the risk of challenging the system, the status quo, or going out on a limb to try out something new. How will the company learn, how will the employees learn? When failures are only met with punitive reactions, creativity dies and fear will prevail.

There is a fine line between data-driven and transparent companies vs. putting employees publicly on the spot for not reaching their KPIs. Establishing clear and tangible Objectives (within a well-defined OKR framework, for instance), deriving comprehensible Key Results, and mapping ambitious but achievable KPIs that all stakeholders will buy into has nothing to do with holding team meetings where individual members are singled out and reprimanded or ridiculed for not hitting their performance targets. The same goes for punitive measures, salary cuts, team exclusion and the like. Though business objectives are to be met, I tend to look into the deeper reasons and parameters when expected KPIs are not achieved.

There can be a multitude of reasons – and my goal as a manager is to understand the complexity behind it and to ultimately root out the cause, very often leading to measures on both sides of the table. Sometimes negative consequences are required and employees might even need to be let go. But this is the last resort – I prefer to incentivize, enable and empower employees to be the best they can be and to achieve their goals. And even go beyond.

Fear Tactics: Chicken and Monkeys

I have witnessed in my career, where an Executive boasted himself to lead his teams by regularly „chopping off the head of a chicken to scare the monkeys“ – a slight variation of a Chinese idiom, a visceral but gruesome proverb for publicly degrading or even firing someone to induce fear into the remaining team. He was proud for keeping his teams in line. Even in my corporate experience, it was common practice of leading consulting firms to commence a reorganization by finding a highly visible candidate to fire first, before executing the next steps of restructuring.

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As mentioned with ‚failure intolerance‘, publicly punishing individuals or teams will suffocate a growth mindset built on learning and sharing. Especially in strict hierarchical structures, where an over-pacing „No. 1“ is leading the pack, open communication is not welcome, team meetings degrade to 1:n monologues, fear will become the lead motivator for performance. I’ve seen it all – and I can say full-heartedly, fear is the last motivator you want in your company.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that companies should be mistaken for social nets. Innovation and progress benefits from competition, challenges, pressure to invent and to transform. But it is all about people. When we lose the respect, trust, and faith of our people we also lose the capability to thrive, innovate, and create value for our business and our communities.

Micro-Management: Nitty-Gritty Destruction

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Coming in right after ‚Directive‘ and usually coupled with ‚Over-Pacing‘ as a preferred leadership style in tandem, ‚Micro-Management‘ is another element you can often find in toxic working environments. It is a destructive agent eroding work ethics and prohibiting sustainable growth. Usually stemming from fear of failing on behalf of the micro-managers themselves, they start controlling, rechecking, injecting themselves into all working steps of their teams. There might even be positive results coming from this – in the beginning. Especially when it’s about hitting your short-term and critical time-, quality-, or budget-sensitive targets from a top-down perspective. In the long run though, managers are reflecting distrust towards their employees. A distrust that employees are not capable of independently achieving their goals. Paired with not listening to the team and taking their needs into account, micro-managing will prohibit any genuine rapport with the team.

This is the opposite of a confidence builder. Being micro-managed will ultimately lead to more dependency – and voilà, you have fostered even more micro-management. This element is one of the worst management habits and toughest destructive organizational traits to crack. Comparable to certain addictions as a self-fulfilling downward cycle, direct intervention and mitigation is often advised – with clear objectives for teams and employees, accompanied by task delegation training for managers and skill and competency development for employees.

Command & Control: When Trust has Lost

There are situations that might call for „command & control“, namely crisis management when an immediate threat needs to be dealt with. God forbid, such as natural catastrophes, law enforcement intervention for a person’s safety, or national defense. Piling thousands of sandbags to protect a city against an imminent flooding needs direct action. Crisis management should follow respective guidelines built on directives, pacing, command and execution structures, and control measures as failure tolerances are not viable. So, all of the things above are now OK?

No. Not a single company, team, or individual will and can operate in constant crisis mode. Imagine your company calling out a 24/7 unlimited „martial law“ or a „curfew“ of some sort. What can’t work for an open, striving, and pluralistic society will definitely not work for a company. Even security companies dealing with constant threats will have a baselined „MO“ and day-to-day operations level to provide a tolerable and sustainable working environment for their specialists. And looking into military environments, David Marquet outlines in his „Intent-based Leadership“ that command & control ranks lowest in fostering competencies and strengthening capabilities in organizations. He says „take the authority to where the information is“ – and that is usually closer to the team than you think.

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Regarding toxic work settings, you might come across E-mail scanning as part of internal control mechanisms. Modern online, cloud-based application suites offering lead, sales, or CRM management allow you to conveniently connect your E-mail accounts – while raising security questions regarding unauthorized internal and external data access. Certain applications provide integrated functions and even AI-powered algorithms for automated E-mail analysis, usually for IP protection (again, trust issues) and with the promise to protect data privacy. What is being processed? Who owns the reports? What data is visible? Sometimes it may go too far if E-mails are being scanned and read by administrators, managers, or even 3rd party. What in some states would constitute a severe data privacy breach and a legal case, is a commonly known sensitive area in the industry impacting companies, NGOs, and startups alike – the latter two often lacking a comprehensive compliance department and respective security review processes. This is a larger issue, as we are not even addressing security vulnerabilities regarding foreign intelligence agencies as well as a plethora of hacking and data grooming with criminal intent.

Nontransparency by Design: Fear the Light

Speaking of the hardest things to change in toxic working environments – let’s talk about what they fear the most: transparency. Why? In most of these settings one can sense that something is wrong. Is it the general tone of communication within the company or team, is it a gut feeling you get when a certain company event is coming up – or is it witnessing abusive behavior: indications can vary from intuition to hard facts. It’s bringing things to light that creates the most powerful antidote to toxicity. A person’s safety and well-being is most important and one shouldn’t bring oneself in harm’s way. Courage is an admirable trait – but not all are bestowed with it equally, without judging, as not all of us are carved out of superhero stuff. There are different ways to express courage: from a simple conversation to requesting mediation, from reaching out to union reps or compliance to leveraging external resources, from whistleblowing to leaving the team or organization, it’s seldom that Hollywood-speech moment that melts and heals the hearts and changes toxicity from one moment to the next. As with all things related to people, it often requires a process.

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When individuals start communicating with each other, they can create a momentum of awareness. People connecting with one another is one of most pervasive and permeating antagonists of oppressive structures. Awareness creates transparency, awareness creates empathy, awareness creates solidarity.

So, addressing toxicity demands transparency and getting to the root cause. For the sake of all stakeholders involved and for the sake of the company. Open reportings, top-down and bottom-up accountability, open communication, decentralized, peer-driven reviews, OKR frameworks, and more can be helpful to build resilient organizations immune to toxicity. And as with regular flu shots, this immunity in itself is a constant review process.

What does leadership need to do? – Impulses for a Healthy Compass

In corporations, startups, owner-managed or family-owned SMEs – as some might be more prone than others, toxicity can be found everywhere. Apart from taking people to heart, connecting, creating awareness, and fostering an open and diverse company culture, my highlights for building and maintaining a resilient organization are:

  • Open and accountable leadership
  • Clearly communicated objectives and key results
  • Transparent KPIs throughout the organization
  • Give employees a tangible perspective on their role in the company’s success
  • Regular employee surveys and pulse checks
  • Develop and design your organization around its purpose and holistic value contribution
  • Regular team meetings – at best employee organized; open discussions, and a genuine interest to listen to the teams
  • Compliance & ethics: not a lip-service but a mission for leadership to install ethical governance
  • Have good mentorship programs and foster healthy peer support structures
  • Managers should provide regular trainings for their teams to fulfill their goals, and for themselves to become better managers
  • Though agility isn’t the answer to all organizational challenges, it might prove useful when embracing core principles around flat hierarchies, delivery-focused & competence-driven teams, co-creation and iterative cycles
  • Talents of today will be the managers of tomorrow: so, start with ethical values from early on
  • Invest into your people, and appreciate the time they are investing into the company
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Conclusion

This boils down to developing a healthy company culture. The visionary impulses by New Work’s thought leader Frithjof Bergmann, with people-centric concepts and evolving value- and purpose-driven work from there, are becoming more and more pertinent through digitalization and globalization. The blueprint for modern society, life, and work has changed. The more inclusive and diverse team settings are, and the more employee and customer participation is valued and overall transparency is fostered, employee satisfaction and productivity will rise. If organizational foundations are built on a mutually respectful mindset focused on purpose, diversity, appreciation, and equality – fundamentally humanistic values – it will make organizations more immune and resilient towards toxic influences.

I’ve learned that behind every action is a good intention – even if the actions appear to be obviously malignant, they often follow certain inner rules or reasonings of being „good“ or serving some valid purpose. But as another saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Last Words

This article is not criticizing a specific company or organization. It is an extract out of an almost 30-year career in different organizations, teams, projects, and settings – most of which were highly productive, friendly, and very nourishing working environments. But there are exceptions to the rule, in my own working as well as in my coaching experience. And knowing how painful these experiences can be, I hope sharing this can help on providing insights and impulses for your own decision process, on both sides: you find yourself in a toxic environment – what should you do now? And on the other side, do you want to be a toxic organization?

Whatever the answer you find for yourself: start your transformation, now!

 

Picture Credits: Min Thein, Pexels; Unsplash; think.speak.transform.

About Pascal: Growing up between cultures and looking back at a career in IT, Technology, Media, and Innovation as an Executive and strategist for Fortune 500 companies and industry leaders has given me a unique perspective. In my article series „Tech Navigators View“, I want to open up the conversation and help develop a deeper understanding, to enable readers to become their own navigators in this constant flow of change and increasing complexity.

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