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Whenever I talk to people about how Toxic Cultures evolve, I take them through the model I developed for my recent book.

One of the key messages of the model is that toxic workplace cultures are not due to a single bad leader or a few bad apples. The development of this kind of culture is a gradual and complex process that begins with unrealistic performance pressures and unacceptable behaviours and develops through a predictable sequence.

The model itself continues to evolve, but the fundamentals are the same:

The two drivers of toxic culture are the Normalisation of Deviance – where the unacceptable risks or behaviours become accepted – and Cognitive Dissonance – where people’s behaviour differs greatly from the values they espouse. These dimensions accelerate how quickly a toxic culture can emerge.

The evolution of toxicity tends to be triggered by performance pressure, such as aggressive goals and external expectations, and people begin to believe the end justifies the means.

The evolution process goes through four broad phases:

  1.  unrealistic performance pressure where toxic leadership behaviours are tolerated.
  2. others are expected to align with this style or get out of the organisation.
  3. the results begin to come – at enormous cost – and academics, journalists, and shareholders laud the success.
  4. finally, the organisation becomes a cultural cult built around toxic practices – before the inevitable implosion.

This evolution is enabled by the ‘toxic triangle’ of toxic leaders (and it does tend to be plural), weak and susceptible followers, and an environment that is conducive to toxicity.

We see this pattern in case after case, from the Post Office scandal to Fred the Shred’s escapades at RBS. But it can be prevented, and in many – though not all – cases, it can be reversed.

In this introductory blog, I’ll cover the critical elements of the model at the top level. Later in this series, I’ll take a deep dive into each part.

zuhra consulting model of how Toxic Cultures evolve

Driver 1: The Normalisation of Deviance

The first driver – the normalisation of deviance – was identified as the reason for the tragic crash of the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986.

The shuttle exploded shortly after take-off, killing all seven astronauts on board. The accident was initially considered to be due to a technical malfunction. But in fact, the tragedy resulted from a failure in the corporate culture.

Pressures to deliver the rocket on time meant that managers glossed over concerns from the engineers about the ‘o’ rings – the vital seals in a joint in the shuttle’s solid rocket booster.

NASA’s hierarchical organisational structure enabled this to happen – along with demanding management focused on saving money. Subcontracting the technical excellence of engineering led to deference to the client at the expense of safety.

Driver 2: Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is a psychological concept where we, as humans, can hold two conflicting beliefs at the same time. In other words, we say one thing and behave in a different way.

When I talk about the second driver, cognitive dissonance, I share the example of VW.

Around ten years ago, VW’s leadership claimed they were leading the way in reducing carbon emissions. In reality, they were trying to outwit the Californian regulator by fitting cheat devices to ten million cars in the US.

Cognitive dissonance goes beyond simple lying. In many cases, organisations come to believe their own PR while acting in a completely contradictory way.

The interaction of the Normalisation of Deviance and Cognitive Dissonance drivers embed a toxic workplace culture.

The four stage Evolution of a Toxic Workplace Culture

In my work, I identify four stages of a toxic workplace culture.

Phase 01: Toxic leadership behaviour becomes tolerated

The first stage is typically where a new CEO is appointed and sets out a grandiose vision to be the best, biggest, or the greatest.

Precisely how this is achieved is left to the management teams, who may increasingly tolerate unacceptable behaviours such as pressurising and bullying if it is seen to deliver.

At Boeing, for example, the time pressure to launch the Boeing 737 Max was characterised by a countdown clock in every meeting room. This led to corners being cut and, ultimately, several hundred fatalities when unsafe, unready aircraft were sold to operators.

Phase 02: Demand for loyalty and alignment

The second stage comes when the leader demands unquestionable loyalty.  Staff cannot question the new vision. Those who dare to are likely to be fired, and others who doubt the vision quickly look for another job. This means the organisation soon loses the ability to bring checks and balances to its strategy.

Phase 03: Reverence from external stakeholders

In the third stage, respected academics, journalists and business schools applaud the organisation’s success and venerate the leader.

London Business School and Harvard wrote articles about RBS’s success entitled the ‘Masters of Integration’ and the ironically named ‘The strategy of not having a strategy’.

Both were published shortly before the bank’s ignominious crash and the ejection of Fred Goodwin.

Phase 04: A cult of singularity

The final stage is where a toxic culture is so embedded that it becomes a cult.

Let’s take the Post Office as an example. In 2021, 39 sub-postmasters finally cleared their name in the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

The Post Office prosecuted more than 700 sub-postmasters for supposed embezzlement. In fact, discrepancies in takings were down to a deeply flawed IT system.

These prosecutions continued for more than 15 years. Some sub-postmasters went to jail, and some died or committed suicide in their effort to clear their names.

Why?

The Post Office would not believe their IT system was flawed and therefore assumed that sub-postmasters could not be trusted.

How do toxic workplace cultures become embedded?

The Toxic Triangle

Toxic workplace cultures alienate good people, destroy engagement, and wreck the well-being of those impacted. And toxicity becomes embedded by a triangle of toxic leaders, susceptible followers, and a conducive environment.

  1. Toxic Leaders

There are three dark personality traits that, left unchecked, will threaten any organisation: Machiavellian, psychopathic and narcissistic.

In my research, I was horrified to discover that there are more psychopaths in the board room than in prison. This probably explains why we are seeing more and more cases of toxic workplace cultures.

I recommend that Boards and HR directors include a personality assessment, such as Hogan, for every leadership promotion or hire.

  1. Susceptible followers

The second part of the toxic triangle is susceptible followers who are too afraid to challenge harmful behaviour or who are likely to personally benefit from supporting it.

Recently at the Ministry of Defence, a group of sixty senior female leaders sent a letter to the Board complaining of widespread misogynist and offensive behaviour. Leadership colleagues would openly comment on women’s appearance, allow male colleagues to talk over their female counterparts, and enable other men to sexually assault and harass women in the workplace.

This was reinforced by their followers who colluded with this behaviour – even having an Excel spreadsheet ranking women on ‘attractiveness’.

  1. A conducive environment

And finally, a conducive environment enables toxicity to flourish.

Women are often dissuaded from raising grievances. Female leaders often complain of being undermined in meetings. Especially where male colleagues start with: “I think what she is trying to say…”

Performance management systems that reward individuals at the expense of the team, damage collaboration. More extreme practices eliminate the bottom 10 per cent each year, creating a ‘dog-eat-dog’ culture – one of the reasons that GE abandoned this practice.


So that’s a quick run-through of the Toxic Workplace Culture model.

Over the following few blogs, I will take a closer look at each part of the model before presenting a framework for building positive workplace cultures.

If you’re interested in the details behind the model, please read my book, Toxic Organizational Cultures and Leadership: How to Build and Sustain a Healthy Workplace 

At zuhra consulting, we offer confidential advice on how to build and embed a healthy workplace culture. One that encourages all colleagues to fulfil their potential, attracts and retains the best talent, and delivers sustainable results.

Please get in touch to find out more.