What is cultural toxicity and how can it be prevented

Cultural toxicity is the result of people feeling frightened to express their true thoughts and emotions at work in case it has negative consequences on their employment status or professional relationships. Our lack of effective soft skills means that often it is too greater risk to communicate our truth in case it comes out all wrong causing embarrassment, ridicule or offence. People need to work to pay the bills so they will compromise their truth to keep the peace and their jobs. The problem is, these unexpressed emotions do not simply vaporise, they are pushed into the unconscious and accumulate. With the need to work together in most modern business arenas this dilution of the truth shrinks and narrows the professional bandwidth available for people to handle the pressures of a demanding working schedule which gradually erodes trust and increases relationship friction. The signs of cultural toxicity are Blame, Contempt, Putting up Barriers and Defensiveness.



There have been several posts on the toxicity of the work world, originally featured in The New York Times, ‘A Toxic Work World’, by Ann Marie Slaughter and then commented on by Rita J King on LinkedIn, in What Can we do About a Toxic Work World?, in response.

Although both centred on the US and the lack of and subsequent need for businesses to appreciate and allow for more ‘paid’ care for children, parents and individuals alike, it highlights an important element in UK business that I believe is beginning to change: A growing awareness within business of what I call the ’emotional infra-structure’ of the business team/community. I was introduced to the idea some time back that E-motion stands for ‘Energy in motion’ and it occurred to me that when there is passion and motivation in a team the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, when there is fear and frustration the good stuff isn’t flowing and neither is productivity. From this I coined the phrase that ‘positive energy flow directly equates to cash flow’….. crude but true nevertheless in my experience.

So, what is the root cause of toxicity build up at work?

Progression in work has traditionally meant competing for the highest paid jobs. To succeed you need to keep your cards close to your chest and have high level political skills. Being open and honest is not always viewed as the best policy. Trouble is, in my experience, beyond the pursuit of your own career goals a true leader needs to understand and connect with the goals of his staff and often his/her experience has not developed the soft skills necessary to generate the appropriate levels of empathy and emotional intelligence. As we say ‘ the leader creates the culture’ and this is where the problem starts. Just like the saying that owners often look like their dogs, it is uncanny how much a business will attract and cultivate attributes characteristic of the leader(s), good and bad….! Trouble is as the symptoms of toxicity start to become a blocker to operational flow the last place a manager/leader wants to look at is themselves….!!! You see the predicament!

In sum: The leader cannot express their feelings in the workplace,the followers do not feel comfortable expressing theirs either, and so the emotional infra-structure breaks down and the toxins build up. Vwa-la!!

There’s a really smart, positive solution!

Cultures are made by the people at the top. If the top say it’s strictly target focussed, then that is the culture. If the top say ‘you are in a safe place, I want you to express who you are, what you feel, think and believe because this is the value I see in you, the culture changes and work becomes a more human, healthy and creative place to be.

To change the culture of the workplace from one of repressing your feelings and holding in your opinions to one of a more human and holistic place, leaders must be willing to take a look at themselves first:

  • Am I honest with my feelings and views?
  • What is the impact of not doing so on myself and others?
  • Am I being listened to by the team around me?
  • Do I make time to share with my team and ask them to share in return?

Of course in the reality of an intense business environment where targets and accounts are vital to be focussed upon, you may be fearful of changing the opinion others have of you, or losing political gameplays. It cannot be as simple to just start calling for extra meetings to share your feelings, this is a quick fix, will be confusing to your colleagues and will not be sustainable. For a real sustainable culture change to happen, to begin to dissolve the toxins in the workplace and produce a ‘clean culture’ requires a high level of skill and awareness to create the trust and safety necessary to begin to express more of ourselves in the context of work. We are talking radical social change here not quick fixes!

Prevention, always better than cure

Here’s my line of thinking:

  • Businesses need to progress and stay ahead of the game…
  • To progress we have to learn new things
  • Learning new things means we have to change
  • People fear change
  • Fear blocks passion and enthusiasm
  • The fear needs to be cleared
  • Create a learning laboratory or change platform
  • Hire an objective, no strings attached coach to facilitate truthful expression
  • Transfer relevant communication into working context
  • Introduce optimum cultural experience into the business through the creation of a transformation team
  • Clear toxicity and create optimum emotional infra-structure
  • Vwa-la!!!!


If you would like to engage with Carlos Dean, visit the website, or call 07838 184513

Leave a reply

Understanding the importance of culture in business
If you went into a business and did a CULTURE AUDIT what would be the parameters of your assessment…..? Would it be about how friendly people ar[more]
The Mystery of Integrity
The most valuable asset in business is Integrity…… but what is integrity and how do you identify whether it’s present or not? We all talk ab[more]
The New Breed of Business Leaders – Call to Action
Power struggles and greed have without a doubt caused the collapse of the economy and whatever comes next we need it to be built on the lessons of[more]