Toxic culture can be rampant in the workplace, but by bringing strength and awareness to your actions, you to shift it, tapping into our fundamental desire for good
“I could help him, but I’m not going to.”
This is what a colleague said to me years ago about a coworker who was clearly spinning out of control and about to crash professionally. Let’s just think about that idea for a moment: I am able to help, but I choose not to.
There are instances in which inaction would have been appropriate, but in this case, the people involved had a relationship that went back at least a decade. They weren’t adversaries; in fact, they had a history of supporting each other’s success. Although assistance would have been absolutely effortless with an impact that was potentially life changing, the rising man decided that the falling man had made some mistakes and should perish for them.
Fair enough, but when did we raise the bar of human performance to perfection?
When did helping other human beings in need become an act of great effort versus an act of general expectation?
And when did individualism become so paramount in America that we structured community — the feeling of fellowship with other human beings — right out of our lives?
Today the man who chose not to help is a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company. I’m still puzzled and disappointed by his behavior, particularly since he was the first to show me how good people know better but intentionally choose worse. Because of my own similar leadership failures, I was particularly troubled by this man’s inability to understand the power of leadership and the heightened responsibility that comes with it. This experience made it clear to me that our moral and educational systems are failing to adequately prepare our leaders to lead.
I have spent a lifetime researching human behavior as a part of my job as a venture builder. Although I am paid to understand markets and buyers, for the past two decades I have taken a keen interest in a specific area of human behavior: Evil.
Studying evil was not by choice; it was by necessity.
I had to make sense of my life — specifically, my corporate life where I operate amongst thousands of coworkers. As a strategy expert and an agent of change, I’m well suited to lead the path forward for companies in industries facing disruption. But many of these hyperdynamic industries and corporations possess something foul, something vile and smelly within their cultures that cause otherwise good people to go bad. Including me.
According to Philip Zimbardo, psychologist and professor emeritus at Stanford University, evil is defined as intentionally behaving or causing others to act in ways that demean, dehumanize, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people. This includes the failure to help those in distress (bystander failures).
Or, more simply, and according to Irving Sarnoff, psychology educator, author, and Fulbright scholar, “Evil is knowing better but doing worse.”
The first time I knew better but did worse, I was working at a 100-year-old company fighting for its survival. I was part of the change team and the environment was stressed. Manufacturing plants were being closed, supply chains were being redefined, business lines were being cut, and many others were being created. Key leaders were at odds and bad actors were allowed to act badly, creating a system of lawlessness and confusion. Fear was thick in the air as people faced the possibility of losing their jobs and livelihood.
Against this toxic backdrop I made a couple of poor choices. But my colleagues made worse choices, and their choices created a situation that gifted me with a lifetime case of PTSD which repeatedly found me in similar overstressed, high-change corporate environments over the course of my 25-year career. In every case, my hypervigilant human stress response was triggered. And, in every case, I watched good people go bad. Again, and again and again.
We are seeing this in our world today: people behaving badly. Knowing better but doing worse.
Social factors — aka, the culture of the broader environment in which we live, work, and play — affects our stress levels. Overly stressed environments hurt organizations and people because they have a direct impact on human physical and mental health. We call hyper-stressed environments “toxic” environments because they are ineffective as well destructive to its people. According to a study fielded by the HR Research Institute and EVERFI in 2019, toxic cultures are pervasive today:
- 54% of workers report toxic cultures.
- 53% say their company does nothing to address toxicity issues.
- 62% of workers believe their leaders do not create a positive workplace environment.
Studies by the National Occupational Safety and Health found toxic workplace environments a leading cause of workplace violence such as “violent acts, including physical assaults and threats of assault, directed toward persons at work or on duty.” Studies on this issue also conclude that verbal violence (threats, verbal abuse, hostility, harassment, and the like) can cause significant psychological trauma and stress, even if no physical injury takes place.
Researchers have found that toxicity is the byproduct of the interplay of three factors:
- Charismatic leaders who exhibit high levels of narcissism and a destructive ideology of hate.
- Workers who conform to unmet needs, low self-evaluation or colluders who support bad values.
- Environments conducive to instability, lack of checks and balances, and perceived threats.
What I have learned from my experiences in toxic cultures and the unconscionable human behaviors they encourage is that each of us has the power to puncture the prevailing mindset, to shift the trajectory of a situation, and to change the course of a human’s life.
We can each do our part to counter toxic people and situations by following these 3 powerful principles:
1. Speak Up
Toxic environments create the perfect petri dish for herd behaviors, a phenomenon in which individuals act collectively as part of a group in ways that they would not as an individual. To avoid this, don’t justify bad behavior, minimize it as an unusual occurrence, or ignore it and hope it will go away simply because you want to go with the flow. Instead, ask yourself: Will I be proud of my behavior one year from now? If this were happening to me, or someone I care about, would I behave the same way? Speak up and remember that we rarely get a second chance to make up for our silence.
2. Question Actions Designed to “Help Someone Learn”
Often we justify our own and others’ bad behaviors as an opportunity to “help someone learn.” This is a classic rationalization approach for harm-doing in toxic cultures. What is the likely outcome for the ‘learner’ after the action is taken? Will they be subject to pressure from management or peers? Will they be isolated or ostracized in any way? Will they be put on probation? Could they potentially lose their job? Think really hard about the outcome for them. If it’s negative, check your motives to make sure it is not solely self-serving.
3. Realize That Your Perception Is Flawed
There is no way for any one of us to ever truly know the experience of another. We don’t have all the facts, we haven’t experienced the situation as they have, and our biases distort our view of things. Our reality is ours alone. Don’t assume you know the solution to someone else’s problem, or that you even understand the problem at all. Find the courage to ask questions and gain understanding by communicating with others outside your normal circle. The broader your perspective, the more truth you will bring into your life.
As a person who desperately needed others to step up and counter the prevailing dynamic in my organization, I would have considered anyone who had taken the initiative to do so a hero.
When the majority of people are overcome by pressures toward compliance and conformity, the minority who resist should be considered heroic.Social psychology expert, Philip Zimbardo
If you know anything about the history of the world, you know that humanity has a dark side. But I refuse to believe that our future is going to be determined by our lowest common denominator. We’re better than that. There are solutions we can implement — at an individual and institutional level — that reveal our ability to discern goodness. This is the reason we live, the reason we love, and the reason that we press on no matter what. Because at the end of the day, humans are good. Damn good.
You may also enjoy reading Boundaries, Boundaries and More Boundaries: The Key to Managing Energy Vampires, by Christiane Northrup, MD