How to create a toxic work culture in one easy move

Let’s say you were an Evil Manager, and your main goal was create as toxic a culture as possible. You couldn’t be too obvious about it, because people would figure out what you’re up to and push back. You’d need something simple, subtle, and high-leverage.

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What you’d want to do is incentivize them to turn against each other with something like a ranking. You don’t want to use a public ranking- just one that they’re vaguely aware exists. They don’t need to be good if they can make other people look bad, and if they never know exactly where they stand, they’ll play it safe and try really hard to maximize their contributions (or at least the appearance of them) and minimize others. Voluntary collaboration will stop, because now they’re secretly competitors, not teammates. They’ll spend a lot of energy trying to look good, but without being too obvious about their campaign.

There are a lot of ways you can create a ranking. There are overt stack-rankings, but you’re better off going with something subtle. The best way to do it works like this:

  1. At really long intervals (once a year is best), come up with a set of vague, impossible to measure behaviors that you never talk about during the rest of the year, like “Demonstrates long-range thinking”, or “Exhibits leadership.”
  2. Make the employees rate themselves first on a 1–5 scale. This makes it seem like they were an active part of this process.
  3. Rate them on a 1–5 scale yourself. Make sure that no one is a 5 on anything, because everyone has room to improve. Don’t put too much thought into the numbers- these are inherently impossible to numerically quantify, so just go with your gut. Think of a single example that justifies your number, preferably from the last few weeks.
  4. Average the numbers they came up with the ones you came up with. You’ll get something like “Demonstrates hustle: 3.2.” No one will question how utterly absurd that is, because it looks like math. Also, the averages will always weight higher for psychopaths and hyper-competitive people, so you’ll weed out modest weaklings.
  5. Go through each of these arbitrary numbers with the employee, and finish by surprising them with their total w̶o̶r̶t̶h̶ ̶a̶s̶ ̶a̶ ̶h̶u̶m̶a̶n̶ score. Tell them something like, “a 2.9 doesn’t qualify for a raise or bonus, but if you can get to a 3 or higher next year, we’ll consider it.” If they get angry about how arbitrary that is, tell something like it’s a big company/not your system/it’s just how the numbers worked out/it’s just feedback/don’t get defensive.
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The beauty of this is that you don’t have to tell anyone what their rank on the team is. You could give everyone identical reviews, and they’ll just assume that some slacker on the team got a better score than them. Also, want to fire someone? Just give them low scores, and try to make them prove they deserved a higher “hustle” score. Want to do lay-offs without doing any work? Get rid of everyone with a score of 2 or lower, and say you “went off the numbers”, and that it’s only a place for high-performers.

Pretty soon, they’ll be pointing out other people’s mistakes, hoarding tasks, siloing knowledge, and maybe even intentionally over-complicating their work to make themselves harder to replace. You’ll have created a totally toxic culture, and all you had to do was make them think you were ranking them. An Evil Victory!

Educator, business dork, software developer.

Educator, business dork, software developer.