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This stage is about ensuring that team productivity isn't being held back by burnout, a toxic culture, or a general lack of trust and psychological safety.

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Objective:
Prevent a toxic & ineffective culture

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I want to understand the context

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During 2020, 79% of U.K. employees surveyed by Spill said they felt close to burning out, with the figure higher for tech companies. Over the same period, a raft of fast-growing companies — with big names like BrewDog, Away and IDEO among them — were outed by employees for having toxic cultures.

Burnout and toxicity are two ways in which the way an organisation is set up can cause psychological harm, which in turn drastically reduces how effective teams are. When people are burnt out or afraid, they're less likely to spot problems, proactively work with other people, prioritise well, or suggest bold improvements or ideas. When people feel rested and safe, great things happen in teams.


Burnout can grind teams to a halt, but is preventable with the right goals, structures and emotional rewards

Burnout is the topic of a whole other guide that we've written, so we won't go into too much detail here in terms of how to prevent it, but the key point is that burnout — contrary to popular belief — isn't primarily caused by workload. It's caused by the way that workload is psychologically set up and managed: the habits, processes and structures around how goals are set, how feedback is given, and how emotional incentives are laid out. In the guide we give 70 practical tips and ideas for how to burnout-proof your company by changing areas like these.


Toxicity stops productive conflict and feedback from taking place, which makes teams far less effective

Interestingly, fast-growing and mission-driven companies are far more likely to drift — often accidentally — into becoming toxic. There are two reasons why this is the case:

  • Because the company has an already-entrenched internal culture (that seems at least anecdotally to be associated with success), new joiners are at risk of feeling like they need to go along with how things are done, rather than question how things are done.
  • Because employees are being given extra emotional rewards (with purposeful work) and non-monetary rewards (with perks like office dogs), it can be more difficult for them to assert clear boundaries around basic rights like reasonable hours and being treated decently.


Essentially, the things that form a strong company culture — which can be so valuable to both employees and the organisation overall — also bring a higher risk of that culture turning sour.

The difference between a positive strong culture and a toxic strong culture? Whether people feel comfortable and safe speaking up:


Fear of speaking up doesn't just need to mean large-scale whistleblowing. It manifests in small, everyday ways too: essentially any time in which a valid point is left unvoiced. This is when office politics becomes more important than what's right. As defined in one of the Spill team's favourite ever books ('Five Dysfunctions of a Team'), "politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think and feel."

Here are some of the ways in which fear of speaking up might manifest on a day-to-day basis:

  • Not flagging a problem as soon as it's spotted
  • Not flagging when progress is behind schedule
  • Not suggesting an improvement or alternative to a process
  • Not putting forward a slightly more out-there idea
  • Not intervening when you see someone about to make a mistake
  • Not sharing a mistake or a learning with the wider team
  • Not making a decision
  • Not questioning a decision
  • Not defending the quality bar
  • Not defending the speed-of-execution standard
  • Not pushing back against unrealistic standards or deadlines
  • Not questioning someone's logic or thinking
  • Not asking for feedback
  • Not giving enough feedback


The opposite of fear of speaking up is a sense of deep psychological safety: where people feel comfortable to express their true thoughts and feelings, give honest feedback, have productive conflict, and take interpersonal risks. On the next page, we'll look at how to do an audit of how psychologically safe your teams currently feel.

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