Is Your Toxic Environment Leading To Toxic Behaviors?

In toxic, dysfunctional environments people will seek their own safety and best interests, no matter how great the vision of the organization.

Trust is not a by-product of a great organizational culture, rather, it serves as its very foundation. When trust is absent, when trust no longer exists, it is not only the organization that becomes toxic and dysfunctional, very often, so do many of the actions of the people within.

What we fail to realize, until it is often too late, is that most toxic and dysfunctional organizations have been infected with what is known as the ‘creep and seep.’ Which is when fear, mistrust, politics, agendas, ‘creep’ and slowly ‘seep‘ into the very fabric of the environment and culture. Which ultimately affects the attitudes and behaviors of all within the organization.

Cultures that were once open, supportive, even positive…quickly become closed, careful, and calculating.

People working within these toxic cultures, as the lack of clarity and trust dissipate, become more confused..and even antagonistic and angry. A culture that was once prosperous and positive can quickly degenerate into eating itself away and taking everyone within with it.

And it is within these toxic and dysfunctional environments and that we begin to see these toxic and dysfunctional behaviors begin to take hold and flourish…

  • The Chief: when cultures become toxic and dysfunctional, you quickly see the Chief syndrome go into full effect. Everyone wants to ‘be‘ instead of ‘do.’ There is this constant jockeying for position. Rank and title become the focus, over the vision and working together to achieve that vision. It becomes a ‘me‘ over a ‘we‘ environment, often pitting people against each other.
  • The Venter: the chaos and confusion that is inherent in toxic and dysfunctional environments and cultures has a wearing effect on people. People begin to fray at the edges and become worn. You even begin to see changes in naturally positive people, which often leads to unexpected and unusual outbursts. Especially as their frustration of and with the environment mounts and increases over time.
  • The Silencer: the fear and mistrust that invades toxic and dysfunctional environments makes any opportunity for positive conflict and idea sharing feeble, at best. Instead of high energy, productive meetings, only those jockeying for power and title hold the conversation. Everyone else holds their tongue. Meetings and teamwork lose their effectiveness as the best ideas are kept under wraps, never making it to the table. And eventually, it becomes about ‘whose‘ idea (most often a ‘Chief’), rather than the ‘best‘ idea. Slowing and destroying the effectiveness and momentum of the organization.
  • The Complainer: in toxic and dysfunctional cultures, the conversations move away from the work, from the vision, to the issues. Most conversations revolve around what is going on, than what is being done. Issues take the spotlight in this environment, taking large portions of time away from the productive conversations that could better move the organization forward. The environment becomes complaint focused yet, the culture does not allow for the complaints to be adequately addressed and remedied. They just become the elephant in the room.
  • The Resister: as toxic and dysfunctional environments become more entrenched in the culture of the organization…you begin to see more and more resisters. People begin to refuse and push back against the system. Sometimes in subtle, but often in not so subtle ways. People begin to look for ways to pawn duties off on others, or just outright refuse take any responsibility. Which inevitably destroys any and all forms of commitment and ownership.

Above are just a few of the behaviors that evolve out of toxic and dysfunctional environments and cultures. There are many more, from the pouter, to the point maker, and even the politicizer.

However, what we have to first realize and acknowledge is that many people don’t naturally behave or want to work in this manner. Toxic and dysfunctional cultures take their toll, creating environments that allow these behaviors to exist and flourish. People can only work in chaos and confusion for so long before these behaviors begin to make their appearance.

This is not to say that people are not responsible for their actions. But, it is to say that leaders are responsible for creating the conditions, the environments, and the cultures that allow the best work, as well as the best of people to spring forth.

Which is not to say that leaders can fix every organizational ill, but they are responsible for creating the conditions, the environment, the culture where people have the opportunity to be at their best.


“People will respond to the environment in which they operate.  The leaders decide what kind of environment they want to build.”  -Simon Sinek ‘Leaders Eat Last’

4 thoughts on “Is Your Toxic Environment Leading To Toxic Behaviors?

  1. You must have dropped in to visit my school recently. You have brought up a grave issue. What makes it even more frightening for those of us caught in a toxic environment is that our leaders aren’t even aware of just how bad it is. Or if they are aware, they are apathetic towards trying to make a change.


  2. Unfortunately, I recognize the truth in your blog post and wish I had an easy solution to make toxic situations and people better. Thank you for your insight. I will share with my community.

  3. After reading this, I’ve realized that I see this happening in a place that I loved to work. I use to tie my identity to it. It is disheartening to realize that I’m turning into “The Silencer” (as other are becoming), and it is no longer that place which I loved; it is worse- a job.

  4. Thanks for your post. I see it as a call to arms! If we can recognize our own behaviours first, then we have a chance to address whatever toxic cultures we help create. Yes, leaders create the conditions in the system and in schools. But everyone has to examine themselves to see where they can change.

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