Do You Work in a Toxic Culture?

July 27, 2022

Alex Firmin

CEO of Promethean Executive

Those of us who have worked for Toxic Leaders; individuals in senior positions who demonstrate self-serving behaviours, attitudes and motivations, will know how damaging they are to the wellbeing and performance of their colleagues, and ultimately the businesses they work for.  Toxic leadership certainly damages organisations; Rosen and colleagues (2016) identified that the bullying behaviours demonstrated by toxic leaders can cost organisations £10,000 per employee due to reduced work capacity and time off with stress.  Ultimately businesses may then need to bear the expenses of replacing employees when they inevitably move on; this can become very expensive, and not uncommon.  Depending on your own experience you may or may not be surprised to see that in a study by Matos (2017), 56% of employees surveyed indicated that the managers they interact with every day display some degree of toxic leadership.

Matos, O’Neill and Lei (2018) have conducted a useful analysis on the factors that lead to individuals becoming toxic leaders.  People aren’t born bad, so what makes them that way?  The authors discuss the notion of the ‘masculinity contest culture’, when masculine ideals are taken to the extreme.  Certain organisations will display norms and expectations that encourage social dominance, the prioritisation of work above all other parts of life, and the avoidance of weakness. In these workplace cultures mistakes are irreparable, and signs of emotional vulnerability must be avoided at all costs.  It stands to reason that these masculine cultures provide fertile ground for the recruitment, development and retention of toxic leaders who exert their authority over subordinates in destructive ways. Often this behaviour will stem from deeply routed insecurity; toxic leaders are particularly likely to emerge in ‘dog-eat-dog’ environments where individual may perceive constant threats to their tenuous status as leaders.

Can a Toxic Culture Be Changed?
The good news is that there are multiple instances of ‘masculinity contest cultures’ being turned around, and into high performing environments.  Ely and Meyerson’s (2010) study showed how workers in an oil rig company in a highly typical masculine industry instituted cultural changes that replaced previously valued, stereotypically masculine traits associated with toxicity such as:

  • reckless bravado,
  • emotionlessness,
  • never admitting failure,
  • dedication to long working hours

with an emphasis on competencies aligned with high performance, such as more progressive behaviours including:

  • willingness to admit failure,
  • relying on and learning from others
  • expressing vulnerability and concern.

Other studies, such as those involving leadership behaviours demonstrated within fire-fighting departments, showed that crews with a culture that encouraged expressing companionate behaviours ) such as fondness, affection, caring, compassion, and tenderness under the rubric of “camaraderie”) and joviality (merriment, amusement, or “good humour”) were much less likely to engage in unnecessary risk‐taking, both in their own lives and at work. The consequences of joviality for performance were particularly notable: crews scoring highly in this trait showed faster coordination time and fewer vehicle accidents during emergency calls as well as less property damage on the job.

Culture can certainly be changed with sufficient effort and persistence.  The start point is for leaders to identify toxic traits and people within the organisation they have developed; perhaps possible only when they are not the drivers of a destructive and toxic culture themselves.

Matos, K. (2017). Detoxifying your culture and encouraging more mindful leadership. Chicago, IL: Life Meets Work.
Matos, K. , O’Neill, O., & Lei, X. (2018), Toxic Leadership and the Masculinity Contest Culture: How “Win or Die” Cultures Breed Abusive Leadership. Journal of Social Issues, 74: 500-528.
Rosen, C., Koopman, J. & Gabriel, A., & Johnson, R. (2016). Who Strikes Back? A Daily Investigation of When and Why Incivility Begets Incivility. Journal of Applied Psychology, 101. 10.1037/apl0000140.

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