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Toxic Work Culture. Are you in one? Or are you Toxic?

Updated: Sep 17, 2022

Defining Culture
How to identify a Toxic Environment?
How to identify a Toxic Coworker/Manager/Boss?
How to deal with Toxic Coworker?
Can toxic environments be changed?

image credit: image from unsplash

In summary, no matter where you go, you'll find toxic people. In my previous career, I generally found that they love working in Marketing or Middle-Management roles. That's why I stay clear of those departments. But point is, you can't escape them, they could be lurking you have to learn how to deal with them. These people love draining you, derailing your projects and some even try to destroy your career. The quicker you learn to identify them, understand them and deal with them, the sooner you can protect yourself.

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Have you heard the story of the scorpion and the frog? A scorpion wants to cross a river but is unable to swim, so it asks a frog to carry it across. The frog hesitates, afraid the scorpion might sting him. The scorpion promises not to, pointing out that'd both drown if he stung the frog in the middle of the river. The frog considers, believes this reason to be sensible and agrees to carry the scorpion. Halfway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog anyway, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion, why would you sting me, knowing the consequence being death to both of us? The scorpion replies: "I am sorry, but I couldn't resist the urge. It's in my nature."

We'll get revert back to this story a bit later, first, let's look at culture...

Defining Culture

What exactly is Culture-- in most companies, they'll say it's "How we do things"

It's how things get done that either retains customers and employees, turning that loyalty into brand advocates. Or it's what breaks your company, losing talented employees and loss of customers.

Culture is key, as it creates alignment. When mission, purpose and values are clear, everyone is on the same page and working toward the same goals. When everyone from teams, stakeholders to customers think and talk about a company consistently, Company culture helps leaders and contributors to clarify how to prioritise energy and time.

Culture is influenced by employee engagement. ie. Improving engagement drives high-performing culture and in turn helps accomplish organisation goals. Culture in turn influences the way people work together. From decision making, rewards & promotions, culture sets the tone and affects whether an employee is attracted to a company or not. When employees basic needs aren't met, they can be a barrier to cultural change. However, when engaged they can help fulfil company purpose as set by brand.

So how do we identify toxic culture or environments?

Key markers within toxic environments are

  • old-school bureaucratic culture

  • ruthless competition :cutthroat- backstabbing behaviour (people take credit for others work) or giving incorrect info to sabotage or directly mislead you

  • high employee and manager turnover

  • power is concentrated in the hands of a few

  • abusive management (bullying, harassment, hostility)

  • policies over people (policies exist not to protect people but to use as a means for punishment. Making employees stressed and afraid to take risks)

  • cliques and groups

  • people are shamed when needing time off (overworking is praised)

  • unethical behaviour: blatant hiding of information from customers / managers advocate for manipulative black hat tactics or dark patterns

  • managers place unrealistic deadlines - unreasonable time pressure (set up to fail)

  • unreasonable or unrealistic work loads

  • managers insist on working outside of specific work hours

  • people get away with doing little or no work and get promoted (promotion based on favouritism not performance)

  • managers are aware of learning goals and purposefully blocks you

  • manager or team disrespects you

  • manager or team never supports you

  • toxic corporate culture: failure to promote diversity, equity and inclusion

  • toxic cultures are associated with high levels of burnout, mental health issues, coronary disease, asthma, diabetes and arthritis. (if most people who you meet are on anti-depressants since they joined that company--run)

  • your work is micromanaged and you have no autonomy to get your work done

Drake hotline bling meme (People - no /Plants - yes)
Every now and again, you'll meet people who will remind you why you love plants so much ;)

5 Toxic Culture Attributes

According to MIT Sloan Management Review, there are 5 Toxic Culture Attributes which measured negative sentiment across 128 topics -- these 5 attributes were disrespectful, noninclusive, unethical, cutthroat and abusive.

7/20 most powerful predictors of negative culture relate to how well companies encourage representation of diverse groups, whether they are treated fairly, included in key decisions or made to feel unwelcome. Inclusion is not only based on gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation but companies also need to be reviewed against issues on nepotism or cronyism.

Cutthroat - generally employees will complain about uncooperative teams or team mates, these places are usually recognisable by lack of coordination across silo's, undermining of each other, throwing each other under the bus or stabbing in the back are prevalent.

Abusive- condescending or talking down to employees, demeaning or belittling subordinates --often pulling rank. Or demeaning other departments. Common phrases, "developers/designers don't have the capacity to think, we need to think for them". "we are new leadership, and we will get what we want".

How to identify a Toxic Coworker/Boss?


  • Manipulative -pretend to be nice to you to get you to do what they want

  • They act like they know everything

  • Gang up - they usually speak behind others back, and gang up as a clique

  • Controlling

  • Rude and disrespectful

  • Confrontational

  • Agressive

  • Ridicule or tear others down

  • They do as little as possible and take credit for others work

  • Constantly turn down your ideas (but then present it to others as their own)

  • They play favourites within the team (usually based on in group bias or prejudice) - real managers are impartial and don't base on personal preferences

  • They criticise when you ask for help- when you require clarity and need to clear doubts by asking them for help, they'll criticise you for you or not understanding them

  • They set unrealistic expectations - do they contact you on your days off, after hours or ask you to work on weekends

  • They never notice or acknowledge your accomplishments - if you are doing a good job like finishing before deadline they'll never mention it. And will only focus on anything you've done wrong, and will address it publicly. They'll also make you the scapegoat when something goes wrong. They never take ownership unless it's taking ownership of your good ideas.

  • They are all about the numbers over wellbeing. (common terms for people are "resources")- as soon as they remove you as a human and view you as an expendable resource---run.

  • They don't listen- Good leaders listen

  • They expect you to do their job - toxic bosses love taking credit for others work

  • Toxic Managers divert energy from real work

  • Toxic Managers impair retention, interfere with cooperation and information sharing

  • They exploit others without remorse (no conscience --honesty and integrity mean nothing to them)

  • Managers lead with fear instead of rewards (do as I say, not as I do)

  • As fear is the strategy, recognition of good work is a no go

  • A competitive culture thrives on the pyramid scheme or caste system. Places where huge emphasis is placed on job grading, levels and pointing out seniority - heirachy needs broken telephone, chain of command, and any inefficient structure to slow down the process. Information also usually flows in one direction- like a dictatorship (or usually as directives from middle man/woman to the employees)- This generally results in rework and loss of time.

  • I've noticed that these types tend to look up to Elon Musk or Donal Trump (I'm not into politics, and I don't care about celebs or political celebs, but I've just noticed that toxic people admire other toxic people. They believe they are exempt from the rules. Generally they think they are above the law.

How to deal with Toxic Coworker/Manager/Boss?

Toxic people can be toxic some of the time or all of the time. The point is, no matter where you go, you'll find them. In my previous career, I generally found that they love working in Marketing or Middle-Management roles. You know that role they create for micromanaging that serves no purpose and is there purely to slow down annoy the people who actually work. But point is, you can't escape them, so you have to learn how to deal with them. These people love draining you, compromising your sanity, derailing your projects and some even try to destroy your career. The quicker you learn to understand them and deal with them, the sooner you can protect yourself.

Learn the types: Bad managers come in different shapes and sizes.. some are toxic some of the time depending on context and pressure. Others are just like that consistently. They fall in the dimensions of: aggressive, impaired, narcissistic and rigid managers. Learn how to avoid becoming a scapegoat and how to give them the things they need to feed their ego and be satisfied with you

If you are subordinate to a Narcissistic Manager:

  • Avoid criticising them

  • Show admiration

  • Don’t outshine them; play down your accomplishments and ambition (this is a big one--be very careful)

  • Document your work-- this is most important especially if they change deadlines or move goal posts.. keep track of everything. as they will try to throw you under the bus.

  • Keep your eyes open for other positions

  • Do not take their behaviour personally- they are like this, it's not a personal attack on you as a person. Underlying it might just be learned behaviour- namely they are rewarded when they exploit others, so they haven't yet faced the consequences of this kind of behaviour.

Superiors of Narcissistic Managers also need to be careful. If you supervise a narcissistic manager you should:

  • Watch your back - they want your job and will throw you under the bus to get it

  • Don’t ignore signs of trouble

  • Listen to their subordinates

  • Assess if the narcissism is learned or from early development and if it can be modified with the help of therapy or coaching

  • Get them therapy or coaching

  • Get 360 feedback on them and use it as a major part of their assessment

Rigid Managers

  • Show them that another figure of authority they respect does it this way

  • Let them feel part of the decision

  • Avoid arguing with them on which way is best

  • Encourage their participation

  • Feed their ego, don't criticise them, explain how your ideas fit into their plans

Aggressive Managers (the bully) - these ones want to intimidate for the pure excitement of it

  • watch your back with these ones

  • stay out of their way

  • don't let them see you're intimidated

  • help them with their objectives

Impaired Managers

  • Many suffer from anxiety disorders, burnout, alcohol abuse, depression, PTSD or even ADHD to name a few. Each of these factors can significantly impair performance and ability to work well with others. Many who live with these disorders might go on undiagnosed.

  • Get them the help they need

How to develop your personal competence (self awareness and management)

  1. pay attention to your emotional reactions to situations,

  2. enhance your understanding of why you react as you do

  3. Think of alternate ways to interpret upsetting situations and

  4. Find constructive ways to deal with whatever emotional stress remains

  5. The more you invest in self reflection, the more your personal competence with grow

  6. You can also seek assistance from a trained coach or therapist

How to develop your social competence (as above)

  1. Pay attention to the emotions and behaviour of others,

  2. seek to understand others’ behaviour through reflection and discussions with third parties,

  3. think of various ways to deal with situations, and

  4. observe the effects of your actions. You do not have to be directly involved in situations to learn from them.

  5. Enhance your social competence by observing others, thinking about why people are behaving and reacting as they do, and seeing what behaviour seems helpful in which situations.

Issues that can hinder progress

  1. Certain psychological issues can present a barrier to developing emotional intelligence.

  2. Obstacles include a tendency to interpret situations in ways that lead to self fulfilling prophecies,

  3. black and white thinking,

  4. having interpretations controlled by past painful memories,

  5. holding attitudes that colour your interpretation of experiences.

The fallacy of EQ/ EI (Emotional Intelligence)

I was taught that good leaders have higher levels of Emotional Intelligence and are therefore more caring for others. This is a lie. Some people just have higher abilities to read the room " sensing" and extroverted types. Just because they are more perceptive doesn't mean they have genuine concern for you. A lot of them will try to befriend you to try understand you, only so that they can manipulate you. They read emotion better and are better equipped to manipulate. EQ works with other traits. For example males with higher levels of social information process, indirect aggression and self-serving cognitive distortion were more likely to exploit others. Skill in using emotion, stress management and interpersonal interaction are predictive of psychopathy. Other research has shown that EQ operates indirectly in conjunction with allied traits and skills to predict manipulative behaviour. So just remember, just because someone displays what looks like emotional intelligence, (or masked as compassion) don't be fooled by them. The underlying pre-disposition and competency of the individual can help you gauge if what they say and do are aligned. These people who display high levels of EQ are also able to simulate emotion. And unfortunately, the tendency toward emotional openness doesn't work in your favour. It would seem that emotional openness is associated with gullibility and overestimation in others' honesty. Basically, the more honest you are, the more you are a target for these types.

Remember, just because you believe hard work and shared responsibility or being fair is the right thing to do, doesn't mean others play by the same rules. The world isn't fair. Don't expect toxic people to play by fair rules or to have a conscience.

Can toxic environments be changed? - it depends, are you willing to maintain the status quo or are you ready for change?

  • Take responsibility -leaders can't fix things until they look at themselves and explore how they've contributed to influencing this negative situation - Good leaders have genuine compassion and humility

  • Communicate and observe (who dominates conversations, is there anyone excluded or undermined- is someone using their status to control others?)

  • Rethink your teams decision making- and double check their decision making bias

  • Rethink how you hire and don't be fooled by the extroverts and smooth talkers

  • Rethink who is put in charge of hiring

  • Practice what you preach.. don't pretend those are your company values, when none of you live it.

  • Value employees & contractors and suppliers (they are people, not resources)

  • Create a safe environment- don't keep asking for surveys, then ignore everything being said in them. If you want change, stop ignoring the people -listen and create change - if employee notifies you of nepotism, sexual harassment or bullying, don't promote the manager and silence or shame the victim. This culture of shaming the victim instead of dealing with the perpetrator needs to stop.

  • Make it a place where it's safe to excel

  • Make it a place where it's safe to fail

  • Make it safe to speak, no matter who you are or what level you're on

  • Give credit where credits due

  • Trust people to get the job done, instead of trying to micromanage so that it looks like your job is relevant. Why not learn to actually do some work.

  • Most importantly, it's not about the coworkers or the managers, it starts with us. I've seen many who fall into the trap of treating others the way they were treated. For example the toxic pattern I've noticed is that there's a culture of people taking credit for others work. Because they see how they are rewarded for exploiting others. And because they were previously exploited, they in turn do that to others. Instead of breaking the pattern. And if you don't play their game, and follow their rules you'll be excluded and undermined. There's no need to follow the crowd.

  • Maybe the best answer is actually the simplest, maybe it's time to move places like that, might never change.

Roll safe meme: Trying to gaslight me?! .. I take notes with dates
roll safe

  • I honestly don't know if toxic places can change. While you're there, just make sure you always keep a record of everything, make sure to save any verbal info in written format, and if they insist on a call, make sure you follow up with an email stating what their requests were. People like this will always say one thing, then come back and dispute what they've said. If they can't clarify via email so that you have written proof, you need to be the one to waste time to retype their requests and feedback. It's more admin, but it will be the only way to protect yourself from people like this.

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

Friedrich W. Nietzsche

image source:

Reflecting back on our introductory story about the scorpion and the frog, I'll leave you with a slightly better version of the first one, namely the scorpion and the turtle.

In the Scorpion and the Turtle, instead of a frog, it is a turtle that carries the scorpion across the river. The turtle survives the scorpion's sting due to its protective shell. The turtle is still confused by the scorpion's behaviour because they are old friends. The scorpion must have known that its sting could not harm the turtle's shell. The scorpion responds that it acted neither out of malice nor ingratitude, but merely an irresistible and indiscriminate urge to sting. The turtle then delivers the following reflection:

"Truly have the sages said that to cherish a base character is to give one's honour to the wind, and to involve one's own self in embarrassment."

Protect yourself - create your own shell. (Focus on defense instead of wasting time with attack)

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