Toxic Workplace Cultures: Why They Thrive, How to Recognize Them, and What to Do About It

❗️❗️❗️ This is an important and relevant article that I would encourage everyone in my network to read, reflect upon and share❗️❗️❗️

The ideas in this article are not only relevant to the toxic workplaces that many of us find ourselves in, but also relevant in how we navigate all of our personal and professional relationships.

🤔 My thoughts on this article :

The common denominator of the ‘Lying Flat Movement’ in China, and the ‘Great Resignation’ in the US, is employee burnout. Not only are more options available, but many are choosing to live in literal poverty and unemployment rather than participate in the increasingly toxic workplace. There are many factors that cause burnout. I would say that at its core, ‘burnout’ is a combination of insufficient wages and benefits, excessive work hours, not enough time off, and most importantly, a toxic workplace culture.

I believe that ‘culture’ is a doubly-apt and appropriate word to describe the shared mentality of both management and employees that set the tone and ambience of an organization. It is an obvious word which we all intuitively understand to describe a society’s collective consciousness, social, artistic, and intellectual practices and customs. ‘Culture’ is ALSO used to describe the multiplication of microbiological organisms under controlled laboratory conditions (think Petri dish). All kinds of small samples of bacteria or fungi can grow and spread in a controlled environment given the right growth medium. Similar to a microbial culture, an organization’s culture starts with its founding members and leaders. The medium in which these work cultures thrive is ALL OF US, right down the organization’s hierarchy.

Unfortunately the ‘medium’ that we contribute to toxic workplace culture is a result of the specific set of conditions, or wider socio-economic culture we find ourselves in. Declining wages over the last 70 years driven by corporate greed and increasing profit expectations has taken away our wealth, health, security, dignity and happiness. It has put most of us in a survival and scarcity mindset, and we find ourselves struggling to connect with our communities and to make ends meet. Along with the other lingering ideals that American culture (and a wider global productivity and consumer based culture, both positive and negative) contributes, it has made our careers and our jobs the main focus in our lives, and our only source of survival. Not only has this immense pressure and stress caused incredible damage to our culture…It has broken families, produced generations of psychologically ill and maladaptive people, and most importantly, has grown to celebrate and reward some of those resulting negative traits as being necessary and even beneficial to succeed and thrive. Because of our drive to cling to our jobs and our general acceptance of downright abusive behavior in the workplace, we have created this ‘medium’ that enables toxic workplace ‘cultures’ to thrive. Like an abusive relationship, we stick around because we feel there is no other option, while our self esteem and self worth and dwindling dignity reinforces the idea to put our heads down, stay silent, and be productive or else…

Enter the founder CEO, whom which is generally known to statistically (and often, but not always!) posses higher degrees of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism (dark triad traits). From the same pressure cooker that we all find ourselves in, these individuals with these adaptive behaviors find themselves concocting grandiose ideas, and with their higher-than-average intelligence, employ their seductive qualities and relentless self-promotion to amass funding and investment.

And there we have it. The first swab of the toxic Petri dish.

As the organization grows, so does the the organization’s leadership ranks…and who fills those ranks? The founder CEO. Before you know it, the executive staff, middle management and even YOU are all part of that same toxic work culture. And why do we willingly participate in it? It’s not entirely consensual. Because we really don’t have a choice.

Or traditionally we didn’t.

What the ‘Lying Flat’, ‘Great Resignation’ and other global movements, along with the recent reaction of Vishal Garg’s ruthless and unempathetic layoffs en masse at has shown us, is that we have collectively had enough. As the supply of available positions exceed the available labor pool, along with the recent collective psychological awareness that David mentions in his Fast Company article, we have begun to question the actions of abusive management and toxic work environments that have contributed to so much of our collective misery. A more connected society (Hello LinkedIn) has not only allowed us to openly expose and discuss toxic work cultures, but has also enabled us to stay connected and re-connect with the more positive professional relationships of our past.

I doubt this wave will fundamentally cure these abusive tendencies and practices in those that plague the toxic workplace, where deep phycological work is required. However it will have all of us reflect on how our actions are perceived under this new lens, and encourage behavioral changes in the direction of a more just and equitable workplace. Only then will we see less toxic workplace cultures. It’s a great start.

This article sheds light on some of these toxic behaviors, and gives us all some tools and ideas to reflect on. Personally, having been in both an abusive personal as well as separate abusive professional relationships, the idea of ‘Politeness Paralysis’ that David describes is very real. When one finds themself stuck in an abusive relationship, depending on our self esteem, and other factors, we are often mired with fear, struggle to gain the confidence to speak out, and “fail to find our conviction and true voice”. Even though our EQs (and sometimes IQs) may be higher, and we know right from wrong, abusive people see this politeness, kindness and silence as a weakness, and it exacerbates and reinforces this behavior and they continue to take advantage. It’s a vicious cycle. If you find yourself in this kind of dynamic, it is a good indicator that you are in a toxic work environment, culture or in a toxic relationship in general. Not only does this article shed light on this important indicator of a toxic work culture, but gives you the tools you need to address it if you decide to take action.

The energy required for creativity, productivity and big picture thinking is sucked away and converted into the energy needed to participate in and reinforce a toxic workplace culture. In general, a culture that accepts and employs abusive behavior, bullying and exclusivity will NEVER unlock the creativity and productivity that an organization hopes to achieve. Consensual participation, a vision, mission and most importantly an inclusive and self aware work culture will. If you think you or your organization is suffering from a toxic workplace culture and resulting in burnout and poor retention, and you are in a position to take ownership of it and want to give ‘Organization 2.0’ a try, I suggest you ping David M. M. Taffet and the Jukestrat team. I have seen the results first hand.




A Hardware Engineer in San Francisco that thinks about things sometimes

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Brien East

Brien East

A Hardware Engineer in San Francisco that thinks about things sometimes

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