My mission is simple. I want more people to love what they do. Odds are, you’d like to love what you do, too. We need to create work environments that help one another feel truly happy and safe to accomplish this. We cannot feed or allow toxic behavior to fester.
Sometimes we may not recognize how toxic an environment is until we’ve had time to reflect. I’ve repeatedly found the following 7 toxic habits in scenarios with clients (and lived a handful myself).
This article identifies toxic behavior, so we can rally against it—or argue until the cows come home.
If you bury your head, plug your ears, sit idly by, and cash another paycheck, hoping to avoid being the next target of yet another glaring red flag, you fall into passive acceptance and become complacent in the act.
Let's recognize toxic companies and leadership, draw attention to what's not okay—and take charge of raising the bar for the sake of humanity.
No. 1: Propaganda Machines
I ponder why many of my clients that churn the corporate cog at one of the "Top 100 Best Places to Work" express feelings of disgust and misery. Perhaps the company is anything but one of the best, despite (the pay-to-play) public opinion.
Chances are, those Glassdoor reviews are nothing more than an HR initiative to promote positive reviews when times are good. Once the results are posted, they make sure the message sticks by using oodles of VC cash to beat the drum of your conscience into submission.
But upon further examination and a strong hesitancy to glug the Kool-aid, you may discover that the rosy facade is propped with PR-infused corporate defecation.
No one cares about ping pong tables, bean bags, and gift baskets when the culture sucks. And the propaganda machines that serve to cover up toxic culture need to be examined.
- Question everything.
- Recognize that propaganda drumming is designed to deceive you and create a cult-like admiration.
- Consider that the more money and shiny objects they toss your way, the more they encourage you to turn a blind eye—or participate willingly in the chanting and melodic drum circle.
- Double down on your due diligence and back-channel employees from several different backgrounds and seniority. You'll find most people are happy to provide honest feedback.
- Dig deep to know whether you’re ready to gamble your sanity before joining a “Top 100 Best Places to Work” company—or any company for that matter.
No. 2: "Humble" Leadership
In my experience, if someone has to tell you that they are humble, honest, or inclusive, there is a high likelihood that they're not what they purport to be.
A friend of mine shared that their CEO held a company all-hands meeting to address negative feedback he’d gotten about being sexist and demeaning women in the office (often publicly).
For over a half-hour, the CEO dribbled on to the company about how he couldn’t be sexist because he hired a pregnant woman. That’s like white people saying they can’t be racist because they have a black friend.
Projections are often telling in leadership. Sometimes toxic leaders will even go as far as selling their deep-rooted flaws to you as an error in judgment on your part. Talk about gaslighting.
Karma isn't about helping people so you can tell people about what you did. Sometimes it's about helping people and intentionally not telling others what you did.
- Question everything.
- Oftentimes, the most troubling elephant in the room is the elephant being addressed directly. Just because it’s addressed doesn’t mean it’s gone.
- Ask how leadership shares bad news or mistakes with the rest of the company. Do they genuinely believe that their team has the emotional intelligence to deal with the rough stuff? Or do they manipulate and soften information to feign control over issues they don’t want to confront? Tough decisions will always need to be made. True leadership is defined in these moments.
No. 3: Insincere Trust
It’s popular to talk about giving everyone a voice. A seat at the table, if you will. These companies talk about how they hire really great people and simply get out of the way.
The trap: often, toxic companies hire experts and don't listen to them—and then double down on a high-priced consultant to say the same thing, while the experts are left questioning their value and lamenting their future.
Toxic companies love to talk about welcoming team-wide discourse and may even ask to be challenged directly. But only if it's from their loudest employees. They mandate weekly check-ins and shallow team happy hours. Then pry and pry for feedback, but never want the truth.
Should the conversation ever steer too close to home, they’re quick to shut down differences of opinion and steamroll toward unilateral consensus. But, remember, they "trust" you—they just don't want your opinion.
- Question everything.
- Ask tough open-ended questions such as, “Tell me about the last time you were publicly challenged. How did you handle the pressure?” Or try, “Can you share a time when your team was successful without your involvement?”
- Breaking down a guarded executive will often take 3-5 repetitions of asking them “why” to earn clarity.
- Consider that everyone wears their Sunday best during the interview process—and even the most diligent investigators can realize unforeseen micromanagement when tensions rise later on.
No. 4: People First
Stop kidding yourself. Toxic companies build for the investor—not the user and not the employee, despite their claims.
Companies choose profits over people 99 out of 100 times. Ask any expectant mother that’s been terminated a few weeks before maternity leave or that executive that got fired just after announcing they had cancer (of which I know more than a few).
The number of executives I've worked with who have completed a circus-routine hiring process for months—only to get dead silence in return from "employee first" companies—will make your head spin. Guess it's better than getting the ol' bait-and-switch later on.
And what about users? Or the nasty term companies call them, “consumers”? Nom nom.
Do you think it’s healthy to build a product that chemically triggers endless screen time and scrolling? A product that tanks self-esteem and increases suicide rates amongst teens? Are these companies people first then? Or are they creating addictions for revenue?
- Question everything.
- Don’t fall victim to fluffy rhetoric. Instead, follow the prescribed track of (1) Open-ended questions. (2) Why? (3) Why? (4) Why? (5) Assess and decompress.
For example, tell me about when you put an employee first? Why did you do it? Did your action affect anyone else on the team? Why is it important to you?
The recurring theme is to dig deeper and slow down when making important career decisions. You need the time to assess and determine whether a company shows signs of toxicity.
No. 5: #SocialJustice Warriors
“What a shame it is that we live in an era of woke capitalism, in which companies pretend to care about social justice to sell products to people who pretend to hate capitalism.”
Existential Psychologist Clay Routledge sums it up nicely.
Toxic companies talk a big game about diversity only to limit those diverse candidates to DEI roles. Publicly, they care about minorities. It looks good in the press.
But in private, they gaslight, speak over, rule with bias, and often pay diversity less—while monetizing diversity for profit. And their propaganda machine won’t miss a beat. Thud.
Toxic companies have lost why diversity is important and instead focus on a surface level, over-corrective, and PR-centric approach. They don’t have an issue spending money on advertising, but they’re reluctant to invest in the cause or even listen to those deprived of the privileges others enjoy.
Talking the talk doesn’t hide the sin.
And it’s not just about diversity. For example, plastics are ruining the world, icebergs are melting, and we will die much sooner than expected. Fair point. However, toxic companies will have you believe that you need to do better (not them).
The answer isn't to consume more. It’s to consume less. Buying a metal straw doesn’t save the turtles. Boycotting a $30B coffee company does. Manipulation is the use of devious means to exploit, control, or otherwise influence others to one’s advantage. And it’s glaring.
Toxic companies are like toxic relationships. Sometimes you need to cut and run.
- Question everything.
- Investigate most company actions—not just the actions they decide to send a press release about. How are they marketing? Who are they targeting? What are they asking you to do?
- More often than not, you can learn more from a company’s marketing activities than you can from their donations. Things aren’t usually as they appear.
No. 6: Company Credos
Saying everything and nothing concurrently is a special kind of stupid. I mirthlessly expect you to go back and highlight all of the double-negatives I’ve written myself. After all, hypocrisy is clearly on my mind.
But hear me out. When a company lacks vision and has no idea what direction it needs to take, it also doesn't understand its value or market fit. And often, these companies are too quick to rush to market and immediately expect results for a product they don't understand or even have.
For example, “Our mission is to improve the way the world works.”
What part of the world specifically?
THE ENTIRE WORLD, obviously. We’re going to be the next Google.
It’s a well-known industry hack that sharing your company vision and mission statement is a great way to develop like-minded clone wars. And we’re all about copying and pasting the success of other companies.
Facebook. Uber. Coinbase. Qualtrics.
Perhaps I have too much angst for overzealous frat boy founders and Silicon Valley bro culture—but shallow bullshit like this is rampant—and well funded.
INTEGRITY ABOVE ALL ELSE
ALWAYS DO THE RIGHT THING (OR BE AUTHENTIC OR W/E)
RADICALLY-ALLY GIVE A DAMN
SACRIFICE FOR THE GREATER GOOD
- Question everything.
- Is leadership really being honest about the vision? Or is it just another ploy to win you over?
- Is the vision unique and meaningful or of personal significance? Or will their finger in the air decide that core values and integrity get sacked to pivot toward the money or investor whims?
No. 7: Hyper-Growth Excuses
The reckless spending habits and cash management of toxic venture-backed companies reeks of entitlement. These companies often boast of recent 8 and 9-figure funding events—then nickel-and-dime candidates because “we’re just a scrappy startup, you see…”
It’s almost as if their funding validates piss-poor behavior.
Imagine if we let some ride-sharing founder excuse systemic sexual harassment, never turn a profit, and end up on the Forbes list of the richest billionaire Americans. Crazy right?
More leading executives need to challenge the ethos of having more money than time (or brains). I'm talking about the authoritative and sloppy manipulation of money and power in the hands of children who have no business controlling it.
Raise a stink when you see the following toxic scenarios:
- Overconfident and inflexible growth at any cost mantras.
- Dumping ludicrous money into advertising for the sake of learning and failing quickly.
- Financial coercion of hiring staff away from stable jobs—only to expect unfathomable results and fire them without a fair shake 2 months later.
- Hot-potato executive rotation because has-done is more valuable than learning and can-do.
- Repeated and avoidable failures teams suffer through for the sake of speed.
- Hiring the friend from the Alma Mater, not the expert (with a more prominent title).
- Too many goals. Shiny objects. Boiling the ocean.
- Core company direction changes, but the growth goals and expectations do not.
- Hiring scapegoats to human shield chief executives from the board of directors.
- Unlimited PTO when employees can’t reach goals unless they work 80 hours a week.
- In general, the term growth hacking.
Thanks for reading.
PS. If you feel guilty, remember that this article isn't about you, precious—it's about another leader that looks like you, swims like you, and quacks like you.