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The rise and rise of the toxic culture.

Have you noticed a rise in toxic cultures? Sometimes I feel helpless as a coach, that there is nothing I can do or say to support a coachee. I’ve noticed this feeling recently when I’ve been working with people struggling to preserve their own health and wellbeing in the face of increasing pressure from demanding managers or when experiencing poorly communicated or flawed decisions. I have certainly noticed recently the rise of toxic cultures that distorts behaviour.

Let me give you some examples of discussions I’ve had recently with coachees (names changed to preserve anonymity):

  • Jackie was told by her peer (rather than by her line manager) that her job was being split in two and she now has less responsibility.
  • John was told that it was his last day at work by the IT help desk. John had phoned the help desk as he couldn’t log in to his computer, he was told by the IT department that they had been instructed to terminate his access as he was being let go that day.
  • Jane was working 60 to 80 hours a week, when discussing the demands of the job she was told by her manager, “This is not my problem, that’s your job, get it done!”
  • A month after appointment to a new role, and after an extensive selection process including interviews with 6 people, James was told by his new line manager that they had not noticed that he did not have a master’s degree. As his professional qualification was not approved he would have to fund and find the time to study a master’s degree.


Previously, I may have worked with one or two coachees each year who would talk about incidents of poor management and communication, but there seems to be a shift as these incidents are much more common. I wonder what is happening with the communication and decision-making processes that make line managers think that actions like the examples above are acceptable?

This is a modern day pattern, all too common and on the increase in the post recession economy. With the financial uncertainty following the recession, organisations have fought to maintain a low cost base. As organisations become busier and order books become healthier, there has been a reluctance to increase the employee headcount. So the same numbers of people are doing more work, with the inevitable increase in pressure that follows. It is this increase in pressure that distorts individual behaviour and leads to bullying and a toxic culture.

Let’s take the example of one of the most pressurised organisations, the National Health Service in the UK. Although the NHS has not experienced pressure from the economic downturn like commercial organisations, it has experienced funding cuts at a time of growing demand and an ageing population. In this environment of constant pressure a recent report found that a quarter of all NHS employees have been victimised by their colleagues. This is echoed in a wider piece of research across the UK economy published by the TUC (Trades Union Congress in the UK) showing that in nearly three-quarters (72%) of cases the bullying was carried out by a manager. The pressure and stress distorts normal social interactions and creates something very dysfunctional.

However, my examples above suggest that there is more to this than a few bullying line managers (this is not to under play the impact and significance of bullies, but there is something more). The pressure cooker system has created dysfunctional behaviour and dysfunctional organisational cultures. These ‘toxic’ cultures are  ineffective and destructive to its employees.

In an article in Forbes, Liz Ryan identified six signs that a company culture is toxic:

  1. There is only one way to do things (the boss’s way); in a rule-driven, command-and-control toxic culture talented people will be driven away.
  2. Everyone’s number one goal is to avoid getting yelled at!
  3. No one wants to hear your ideas as they’ve already decided how you should do your job.
  4. There are secrets everywhere – the room goes silent when you enter, or your boss’s door is always closed.
  5. People come and go and no one cares, as employees are interchangeable.
  6. Your body rebels – disturbed sleep and eating, headaches, etc.

Liz Ryan says in the face of a toxic culture, “it will definitely be scary to name the elephant and confront the toxic culture issue — but isn’t life all about stepping into new situations, and conquering your fear? That’s the only way you will get stronger.”

In these toxic cultures, there is a loss of humanity. The feelings of others are not considered. Employees are seen as components rather than individuals. This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from the US political activist of the 1960s Mario Savio. “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus – and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it – that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!!”

It is time to speak out, or step out. These toxic cultures and bullying bosses cannot continue. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Employers must have a zero-tolerance policy. Too many are simply ignoring bullying behaviour and failing to support staff.”

Let’s work to challenge the toxic cultures and help individuals. We do not live in Dickensian times, and people should not suffer because of their work. The people displaying the distorted behaviour are as much victims of the system as are the people being bullied, and we must work to change the system.

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