No organization is 100% negative or positive
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Your organizational culture is not static. It’s continually becoming more negative or more positive.
When we talk about organizations we often think in absolutes — companies have either great or toxic cultures. That approach narrows our understanding — companies are not 100% toxic or 100% healthy.
Culture is something fluid that’s fueled by both positive and negative behaviors.
Whatever you feed your culture, it becomes.
The Ambivalence of Workplace Culture
Most organizations fail to integrate their good and bad aspects. Culture is the behavior we reward and punish. A toxic culture is not created out of the blue.
Reflect on what you reward and punish.
Idealization creates deception: The pressure to attract the best talent forces organizations to idealize their culture. Leaders not only drink their Koolaid but also expect everyone else to buy into their fantasy.
Denial generates mistrust: Not acknowledging what’s broken or ignoring tensions won’t make the culture better. It merely creates frustration and anxiety — trust requires being candid about the state of the company.
Tolerance feeds more negativity: Usually, gossiping, blame, and jealousy seem harmless. That’s why most managers do nothing about it. Being too tolerant is dangerous — small acts keep spiraling until they become toxic.
Unfortunately, our brain is more prone to toxicity. Negative experiences tend to be more vivid than positive ones, as shown by fMRI studies.
Negativity distorts how employees view their work and roles — they can only see what’s wrong. Negativity spreads like wildfire — soon, the entire team gets caught in a vicious cycle of rumination.
Failing to reconcile what seems mutually exclusive — the good and bad — is the root of toxicity. Professor Robert Quinn recommends building the skill of holding two opposing ideas and integrate them — imbalance drives toxicity.
In his book The Positive Organization, Quinn invites us to amplify our mental map. Executives fail to see the whole system — they pay attention to a particular problem within the system. Likewise, when someone is not performing well, the first impulse is to want to fire that person.
Most of the time, it’s not the people who are toxic; it’s the culture.
In positive organizations, people flourish — they exceed the outcomes.
There are three challenges to build a positive organization:
- View your culture as a system of tensions, not a static entity
- See the whole system; not just the issues we are trained to see
- Understand that positives can quickly turn into negatives (e.g., high-engagement can turn into exhaustion)
However, positive organizations are not perfect; it’s about integrations both sides. Even toxic companies have positive aspects that can help rebuild their culture. Conversely, being employer-of-the-year doesn’t mean an organization is perfect either.
Your culture becomes whatever people feed it.
Workplace Culture Is Co-created (Toxicity Too)
Organizational behavior can be attributed to many factors beyond leadership, like the business, systems, policies, and people. Leaders influence is critical, but people play a more crucial role than they get credit for.
Workplace culture is co-created by both management and employees alike.
The leadership team of an organization curates the culture — they define or explicit its purpose, values, and behaviors. Through consistency and clarity, they outline the culture. Words are not enough — they must live what they preach.
People’s behavior shapes the culture — they bring to life both positive and negative aspects.
There’s an interesting dichotomy I usually see when helping organizations build a more positive culture. Senior executives take credit for the positive aspects of their culture and blame employees for toxic behaviors. Conversely, employees feel ownership of everything that works and blame their managers for everything that’s broken.
The first and most critical step is to level things up. Successful teams must abide by the shared accountability principle — both parties should be equally responsible for both positive and negative behaviors.
When you see something, do something. Rewarding and punishing good and bad behaviors, respectively, is everyone’s responsibility. If one of your colleagues is gossiping, and you participate in that conversation, you become part of a toxic practice.
Most people blame their managers for inaction, but they don’t speak up themselves. In the case of Google, employees walked out to protest corporate mischief. Similarly, managers must be open to being challenged and own their mistakes. Google said it got the message; the organizers disagree.
How to Deal with Toxic Workplace Cultures
- Culture is Fluid: Culture is not static; it evolves. It’s not under your control, you can curate it, but people are not under anyone’s control. Autonomy is the best reward for a team; the same applies to culture. Letting go of the need to control things is not an option but a must.
- Integrate the good and bad. A toxic culture lacks balance. Things are relative, not absolute. When we stop seeing things from a right-wrong mentality, we can integrate both sides of our culture. Even bad apples can be neutralized.
- Understand Kryptonite & Superpower: Do an inventory of what energizes or drains your team passion. This is not a weaknesses and strengths analysis, but rather to better understand the team. Learn more.
- Appreciate the Positive: The impact of positivity fades quicker than negativity. To flourish, we must increase our daily intake of positive emotions. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson recommends a 3-to-1 positivity ratio. Create space for appreciation of what’s working — celebrate small wins without being arrogant or blind.
- Build a Culture of Positivity: A positive approach is not being naive, neither denying issues — a positive outlook helps reframe problems into more interesting ones.
- Avoid Idealizing culture: Most companies have turned their workplace culture into a PR stunt — they worry more about external perception than how their employees feel. Authenticity matters more than being perfect.
- Create a safe space for open conversations: Most people believe they have it, but they don’t. Unfortunately, people are afraid to speak up, share their ideas, or challenge their bosses. Encourage addressing unhealthy or toxic behaviors openly. Allow people to discuss (not hide) their mistakes and celebrate the lessons.
- Be consistent: I can’t stress this enough. Your organization becomes the behaviors everyone rewards — when you do nothing, you are turning a bad behavior into an okay one. Don’t put values on the wall that you are not willing to live along the corridors.
- Liberate the leader within your team: Each person has both the ability and responsibility to lead — to act upon what they see and improve things. Encourage people to lead— to identify and promote good behaviors rather than viralizing negative ones.
- Be genuine: Define your org purpose or values based on who and your team really are. Don’t try to become something you are not or copy other companies. Inspiration always helps, but don’t try to be like Netflix or Google.
Bonus: 10 Criteria for A Healthy Workplace Culture
Culture needs to be articulated, acted upon, and continually tweaked and reminded. Don’t assume that people remember.
Culture is dynamic and fluid — you need to take the pulse continually. Observation is one of the most effective — yet undervalued — research methods. Walk along the corridor and see how people feel and work. Talk to different people, not just your direct reports or colleagues.
I use the following prioritization criteria with my clients. Check how many of your company’s behaviors fall on the “greater than” side.
Shared Purpose > Lack of Direction
Common Good > Individual Gain
Authentic Conversations > Fear of Speaking Up
Culture Is Co-created > Culture Is Imposed
Positivity > Blame & Guilt
Feedback as a Gift > Feedback as Punishment
Mindfulness > Churn & Burn
Open to Change > Defending Status Quo
Honesty & Transparency > Avoidance & Denial
Talking about Improving > Talking About Leaving