How to make an anti toxic work culture

The BrewDog furore shows how easily a strong culture can turn bad. Here's how to prevent that happening.

Author is therapist Graham Landi
Graham Landi,
Spill Therapist & Manager Trainer

👉 Get access to our Psychological Safety Questionnaire for assessing your risk of having a toxic culture👈

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Recently, it feels like you can't scan the news without seeing a story about a supposedly-progressive company being outed by ex-employees as toxic.

Perhaps the most prolific and recent example is BrewDog, where over 200 current and former staff signed an open letter to the founder about the "rotten culture" in which people were "treated like objects". In May 2021, a similar thing happened at the design firm IDEO, with 47 employees sharing stories of "gaslighting, micro-aggressions [and] bullying" in this post. Before that, there was a big exposé — complete with screenshots of aggressive Slack posts from managers — on the direct-to-consumer luggage brand Away.

Recent news headlines about various companies having their working cultures exposed as toxic

Progressive and mission-driven companies are most at risk of becoming toxic

An interesting commonality among these three companies is that they were all — previously, at least — touted as progressive places to work, where the internal culture forms a big part of the overall employer proposition. IDEO describes itself as a "human-centred organisation". Away's job descriptions say that the company "encourages you to take time to recharge outside of the office" and lets you "bring your dog to work". BrewDog even aspired to be the "best company to work for in the U.K.", although the page on its site where this was written is now suspiciously empty.

These are also all mission-driven companies, whether that's "making journeys more seamless", "creating change through design", or "redefining beer-drinking culture".

When employees join progressive and mission-driven companies like these, two risky forces are at play:

  • 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.

These sentiments from an ex-employee of Away (speaking to The Verge) articulate this point well:

"It’s a cult brand, and you get sucked into the cool factor. Because of that, they can manipulate you."

As do these few lines from the BrewDog open letter:

"So many of us started our jobs there eagerly, already bought into the BrewDog ethos, only to very quickly discover that “fast-paced” meant “unmanageable”, and “challenging” meant “damaging”. Some people (no names, but as a group we know who they are) quickly discovered that this could be exploited, and allow them to treat other staff however they liked without repercussions – making them feel belittled and/or pressured into working beyond their capacity, and often eventually feeling forced out of the business – because that was perceived as the way the company operated, and if we didn’t like it, we should leave."

The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word 'cult' interestingly refers to these two attracting forces: "misplaced or excessive admiration" from members, and an organisation that "imposes excessive control" over them.

The clearest sign of a toxic culture is fear of speaking up

When excessive admiration (from employees) meets excessive control (from the company), the result is a cult-like environment in which people are afraid to speak up.

To quote from the BrewDog open letter again, "put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear. Fear to speak out about the atmosphere we were immersed in, and fear of repercussions even after we have left."

The blog post by a former IDEO employee sounds eerily similar: "I don’t doubt that there are many who wish they could speak out right now, but can’t. Only each individual can calculate their own true cost. Either from fear of further abuse, retribution, or getting fired, they have learned to stomach the silence."

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

Not only does fear of speaking up create a toxic environment for employees, but it's also worse for the business. When problems aren't being flagged, alternatives aren't being suggested, and out-there ideas aren't being put forward, the business misses out — and sometimes in a big way. Would the game-changing ideas in tech folklore have happened in workplaces where employees felt too afraid to speak up? The 'Sent from my iPhone' addition to the bottom of all emails? The early Airbnb hack to professionally photograph everyone's apartment for them? It seems unlikely.

The way to prevent fear is to instil a deep sense of psychological safety

The term was coined in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, an organisational scientist from Harvard. She defines psychological safety as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking". In other words, the team environment feels safe enough to speak up in.

The only way to know if your employees are afraid of speaking up — in other words, how psychologically safe or unsafe they feel — is to ask them. Anonymously, of course.

At Spill, we're starting to think that this is the most important employee metric a company can track — especially a fast-growing company where the culture can change equally fast. We've just started anonymously surveying psychological safety and plan to do it every quarter from now on, to keep an eye on the health of our company culture.

We've added a couple of our own questions to, and slightly rephrased, Amy Edmondson's original questionnaire from her Harvard paper so that it's more relevant to startups and fast-growing companies like Spill.

The questionnaire asks to what extent employees agree or disagree with these nine statements:

  1. "People on this team feel comfortable challenging each other about their plans and approaches."
  2. "Members of this team are able to flag problems, even if doing this slows our progress."
  3. "People on this team won't reject others for thinking differently to them."
  4. "It's safe to take a risk or propose a weird idea with this team."
  5. "I feel comfortable giving people on this team constructive criticism, even if they haven't asked for it."
  6. "It's always easy to ask other members of this team for help, even when they've got loads on."
  7. "No one on this team would deliberately act in a way that undermines my efforts."
  8. "Working with members of this team, my unique skills and talents are valued and utilised."
  9. "I feel confident that I won’t receive retaliation or criticism if I admit getting something wrong."

You can get both the questionnaire and scorecard as a Google Doc you can duplicate here or see how we did the questionnaire as a Typeform here.

The results scorecard from the psychological safety questionnaire as a Google Doc: get it in full here

We love transparency, so here's the most recent results from our survey of how psychologically safe Spill employees are feeling. Overall we were a 37 out of 45, which puts us at the border between 'quite' and 'extremely' psychologically safe, but the breakdown of average score per question (where 1 = strongly disagree and 5 = strongly agree) shows that there are a couple of areas in red on the left where we have a lot of work to do. We'll be focusing in the coming months on trying some exercises and new habits to proactively try and improve these scores.

Average scores by Spill employees on each of the psychological safety statements, where 1 = strongly disagree and 1 = strongly agree

More than being non-toxic, companies need to fight to be actively anti-toxic

Just as with racism, there's a difference between being non-toxic (talking about it and hoping for the best) versus being actively anti-toxic (doing tangible things to stamp it out).

Here, we outline three key areas in which companies can be actively anti-toxic, banishing fear in their employees and hardwiring in psychological safety as the norm.

(1) Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with the company

Psychological safety starts with basic good practice when it comes to the structure of work. Clear expectations, reasonable demands, support: all the usual suspects.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) outlines six key areas of work that, if not properly addressed, make us feel psychologically unsafe, stressed out and anxious. They are:

  • Demands — this includes things like workload, work patterns and the working environment.
  • Control — how much say the person has in the way they do their work.
  • Support — the encouragement, recognition, training and resources provided by the company, manager and colleagues.
  • Relationships — this includes promoting understanding and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
  • Role — whether people understand their role clearly, and whether the company ensures that there aren't conflicting or unnecessary roles.
  • Change — how change (large or small, and external or internal) is managed and communicated by senior people in the business and managers.

HSE has a great workbook (PDF) that goes through each of these six areas in turn, with templates for employees and their managers to discuss, as well as a load of practical ideas on how to improve in each area.

(2) Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with leaders and managers

Leaders and managers need to model safe interpersonal risk-taking in order for employees to feel like they can do it too.

Here are some examples of what safe interpersonal risk-taking looks like. Try setting leaders and managers a challenge to try out one of these new behaviours each week:

  • Saying 'I don't know' in front of other people — we so rarely hear this during our formative years (from parents or teachers) and it has such a profound impact on employees. It demonstrates openness and rallies against a culture of perfectionism.
  • Being clear with work-life boundaries — telling the team they're clocking off after an end-of-day meeting, not emailing on evenings or weekends, and saying when they won't be able to do something on time. All this helps employees to set better boundaries themselves.
  • Admitting to mistakes and fails — this can be done in a light-hearted or serious way, but the important thing is to be open about when they did something wrong, demonstrating that it's not the end of the world if an employee were to do the same.
  • Asking for criticism and inviting conflict — hoping that people will feel comfortable giving feedback or questioning those above them in seniority isn't enough. It's the responsibility of those who are more senior to ask for constructive criticism, logic-checking and debate.

(3) Make sure employees feel psychologically safe with other employees.

Interestingly, this is where some employees can feel most psychologically unsafe, as competitiveness, office politics, misunderstanding and passive-aggressiveness can easily crop up between peers who work together — especially in the new remote or hybrid world.

The key to psychological safety between employees is to foster as much honesty and understanding as possible. The more honest we are with each other, the more we understand each other as whole people. And the more we understand each other as whole people, the less likely we are to misinterpret actions, or feel resentful and competitive, or assume the worst.

The absolute bible when it comes to encouraging honesty and understanding in teams is a book we mentioned earlier on in this post, 'The Five Dysfunctions of a Team' by Patrick Lenconi. Although the title makes it sound like a slightly dry management textbook, it's written as a fable — the story of a fictional company and how its team members interact — so it's actually very readable. It has dramatically changed the way in which we interact with each other at Spill, and we now even give the book to new joiners as part of their onboarding pack.

Here are two exercises that the book suggests for building team trust and openness, and two more that we've also found to be really effective at building interpersonal understanding:

  • Personal histories exercise (~20 minutes per person). Even on close-knit teams, we can still be surprised by how little we know about our colleagues. This is a relatively low-risk exercise, and questions don't need to be overly personal: number of siblings, what life was like growing up, experience at school, first job, worst job, and so on. Just by describing these relatively innocuous attributes and experiences it helps team members to see one another as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds. Ask each person to speak for around 10 minutes, with 10 minutes for questions. Often the questions are the most interesting part.
  • Strengths and weaknesses exercise (~15 minutes per person). Best done in smaller teams (less than 10 people), rather than bigger departments. Take some silent time for team members to write down the single greatest contribution that each other person makes to the team, and the one area that person must either improve or eliminate for the good of the team. Everyone then speaks through their response, focusing on one person at a time. Ask the person hearing their responses to reflect on how they feel about it. The aim is for it to be at times uncomfortable, but never personal.
  • 'Life graph' drawing exercise (30 minutes in pairs, then 10minutes for each pair to present back to the group). Employees are put into pairs and go off for 30 minutes with the task of spending 15 minutes each talking about their life, from birth up until now. While one person is talking, the other listens intently and draws out the highs and lows of that persons life as they hear them (asking clarifying questions where necessary). When presenting back to the group, each person shows and talks through the other person's graph — and then at the end the person hearing their own graph is asked how it felt to hear that.
  • 'Desert island discs' exercise (45 minutes in pairs, then 10 minutes for each pair to present back to the group). Inspired by the radio programme 'Desert island discs' on BBC Radio 4, this is a great exercise for helping to understand other people better through the catalyst of music. Employees are put into pairs and go off for 45 minutes with the task of thinking about which five songs they would want to take with them if they were being shipped off to a desert island. They can also take one luxury item (but it can't be anything that could help them to get off the island). After thinking about which songs to choose in silence first, each person then takes the other through their song choices and why a song has particular emotional resonance to them. When presenting back to the group, each person explains the other person's choices and gives a summary of what they learned about the person that they didn't know before.

One final thing that hugely helps boost interpersonal risk-taking is having a feeling of unconditional positive regard from fellow teammates. When we don't just feel accepted because of how we've performed recently, but because of how we are fundamentally as people, it's so much easier to go out on a limb and be honest, or start conflict, or invite criticism. We feel safe and held enough to take the risk. One way to build unconditional positive regard is with a steady stream of unconditional praise. That means the "you're a thoughtful and funny person" kind of praise, not the "you worked really hard last week to get that project over the line" kind of praise. We use one of our own Spill features, Wall of Praise, to remember to give someone unconditional praise each week over Slack.

Remember that doing nothing is the biggest risk of all

A strong company culture is a double-edged sword: on one hand, if it's paired with an entrenched feeling of psychological safety, then it can be one of the organisation's most valuable assets. But left unchecked, it risks creating feelings of fear among employees and ultimately morphing into a toxic cult-like environment. By measuring psychological safety regularly, and by implementing active processes and habits to hardwire it into the machinery of the company, we can not only preserve our company culture, but more importantly, keep it healthy too.

👉 Get access to our Psychological Safety Questionnaire for assessing your risk of having a toxic culture👈

(We'll email you a link to a Google Doc, and will add you to our newsletter too — but you can always unsubscribe later if it's not your thing.)