Toxic Culture: 13 Things Leaders Punish Instead of Praise

by | Last updated Jul 11, 2023 | Culture, Leadership, Measurement

toxic culture



Toxic Culture

Culture refers to the shared beliefs, norms, and practices that govern how we behave and interact within a group. In any organization, the cultural environment is crucial in improving employee well-being and productivity, but the opposite can also happen.

Toxic cultures are characterized by persistent patterns of harmful attitudes and behaviours. They result in negative feelings or outcomes, hampering the overall effectiveness and productivity of the organization. Moreover, toxic cultures often penalize traits and behaviours that should instead be celebrated.

“If you don’t manage culture, it manages you.” – Dr. Eric MacIntosh.

The effects of toxic cultures can be far-reaching and severe, impacting individuals and organizations. For individuals, these environments can lead to high stress, anxiety, and burnout, reducing their productivity and job satisfaction. Over time, this could result in physical health issues, deteriorating mental health, and stifled personal growth. On an organizational level, toxic cultures can result in high turnover rates, low morale, a decrease in innovation, and, ultimately, a decline in productivity and profitability.


Broken Behaviours: Where Leaders Fall Short

But what is broken? Understanding the characteristics of a toxic culture, the tangible, measurable things broken in that culture, is the first step toward identifying and ultimately addressing these destructive patterns.

Here are 13 ways leaders punish things they should promote:


1. Asking Questions

Toxic cultures often stifle curiosity, viewing questions as a sign of incompetence. For instance, a new team member might be discouraged from asking questions for fear of looking stupid.

If we promoted asking questions, it will help learning, understanding and fostering intellectual growth and collaboration. For example, Sue Whitt, Vice President, Clinical Operations, Clinical Data Sciences & Clinical Digital Solutions at Gilead Sciences, speaks to how she encouraged a questioning culture to bring her team together at Pfizer.


2. Taking Risks

Toxic cultures discourage taking risks, leading to fear and stagnation. For example, an employee might hesitate to propose an innovative solution due to fear of failure or criticism.

If we celebrated risk-taking, it would encourage innovation, creativity, and forward-thinking. For example, Jeff Bezos promotes an explorer mentality in his teams centred on innovation.


3. Making Mistakes

Toxic cultures treat mistakes as fatal flaws, leading to hesitation, dishonesty and fear. A manager might disproportionately focus on a team member’s small mistake rather than seeing it as a learning opportunity.

If we turned mistakes into learning opportunities. It could encourage intellectual risk-taking, critical thinking, and resilience. For example, Geoff Woo, CEO Of Nootrobox, says we want an open team dynamic where people work together with honest, open lines of communication, not a culture of fear and perfection.


4. Asking for Help

Toxic cultures see asking for help as a weakness. For instance, a team member might spend hours trying to solve a problem on their own, even when colleagues could provide assistance, to avoid being seen as incapable.

If we promoted asking for help, it would foster a culture of support and cooperation, improving task efficiency and team bonds. For example, Tim Brown, CEO at IDEO, says that Leaders at his company prove their helping nature by giving and seeking help themselves.


5. Working Together

Toxic cultures might prioritize individual achievements over teamwork, causing information hoarding and rivalry. For example, a team member might hold onto valuable insights to increase their standing rather than share them for the team’s benefit.

If we encouraged teamwork, it would create an environment where collective success is celebrated, leading to improved problem-solving, increased innovation, and a more cohesive team dynamic. For example, Dropbox has a culture of generosity and encourages reciprocity. They have created a culture this way by setting expectations from day one and encouraging employees to be generous with their time and expertise.


6. Having Each Other’s Back

Toxic cultures discourage advocacy, especially for underrepresented or marginalized individuals. A team member might be afraid to speak up to support a colleague for fear of being seen as a troublemaker.

If we promoted advocacy, it would cultivate an environment that is more inclusive, equitable, and supportive, where diversity is embraced and everyone’s voice matters. For example, Hubspot outlining its approach to an empathic culture code helps them support themselves.


7. Openness to New Ideas

Toxic cultures often resist change and are closed off to new ideas. An innovative proposal could be shot down simply because “it’s not how we do things here.”

If we celebrated openness to new ideas, it could lead to constant evolution and adaptation, fostering an innovative, flexible culture ready for future challenges. For example, Google encourages new ideas through its 20% rule, where employees can use paid work time to pursue personal ideas.


8. Celebrating Successes – Both Big and Small

Toxic cultures might only reward high-impact, visible successes, overlooking more minor accomplishments or improvements. An employee’s steady progress and consistent hard work might be overlooked in favour of a high-profile project.

If we celebrated all successes, big and small, we can boost morale, motivate team members, and create a culture of appreciation and recognition. It acknowledges effort and progress, not just end results, promoting a more holistic view of success. For example, Indeed celebrates both completion of projects and first-time accomplishment for a newer employee.


9. Being Yourself

Toxic cultures may pressure individuals to conform to a mould, punishing those who dare to be different. An employee with a unique work style might be criticized or marginalized rather than appreciated for their unique contributions.

If we gave space for individuality, it could spark creative ideas and foster a culture that values and learns from the diversity of its members. For example, Imprivata, a digital identity company, believes that personality and passion lead to more motivation vs education and experience.


10. Expressing Vulnerability

Toxic cultures often view vulnerability as a sign of weakness. Employees who share personal challenges or struggles at work might be labelled as unprofessional or incapable.

If we appreciated vulnerability in the workplace, it would lead to deeper connections, mutual support, and a more empathetic environment, fostering a culture that encourages trust and understanding.


11. Setting Work-Life Boundaries

Toxic cultures often ignore work-life balance, pressuring employees to overwork. Employees might feel obligated to answer emails late at night or on weekends for fear of being seen as uncommitted.

If we promoted setting work-life boundaries, it would lead to healthier employees, increased job satisfaction, and improved productivity, cultivating a culture of respect for personal time and well-being. For example, TaskUs, a global Business Processing Outsourcing company, has a “No Chat Weekends” policy, discouraging employees from sending emails and chat messages on weekends and during vacations.


12. Acknowledging and Managing Stress

Toxic cultures sweep stress under the rug or glamorize it as a sign of hard work and dedication. An employee might be expected to work long hours and take on high workloads without recognizing the stress this causes.

If we encourage managing stress, employees can work at their optimal level without the risk of burnout. Organizations promoting stress management will likely see improved productivity, better employee engagement, and lower turnover rates. For example, Lee Rubin, CEO and co-founder of Confetti, says that expecting employees to work long hours doesn’t make sense, so they hire more when the load gets too big.


13. Exercising Self-Care

Toxic cultures often neglect the importance of self-care, seeing it as indulgent or unnecessary. An employee who prioritizes their health and well-being might be seen as needing to be more dedicated to their job.

If we promoted exercising self-care, it would encourage individuals to prioritize their well-being, leading to increased morale, productivity, and overall job satisfaction, creating an environment that values well-being as an essential component of success. Akamai, a cloud computing and security company, hosts regular wellness activities like wellness workshops, pet therapy, and scavenger hunts.


What Now?

We see the behaviours, but what if you are stuck in it? What can we do about it? Identifying a toxic culture is one thing, but navigating it and finding strength within the whirlwind is a different challenge altogether. We’ve all been there or known someone who has. It’s time we equip ourselves with the right tools to break free.



About the author

Jason Boivin, Lead Content Strategist at innerlogic.

Jason holds a master’s degree in Human Kinetics with a concentration in Intervention and Consultation from the University of Ottawa in Canada, is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Canadian Sport Psychology Association, and is a Chartered Professional Coach with the Coaches Association of Canada.

Jason is driven by his passion for helping others succeed in a meaningful way. Through his extensive work with high-performance teams, Jason has developed a deep appreciation for culture and its impact on relationships and results.



What this article helpful?
👍 Yes👎 No

Take your culture to the next level with innerlogic

You might also like