Fire hose area in Brazil

Toxic can be incendiary!

The current re-read, Bad Blood, Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, is a cautionary tale of the impact of a  toxic culture that seemly sprang into existence the day Theranos was founded.  Most organizations that have a toxic culture don’t begin as toxic but rather evolve.  For the fans of the re-read we will take a slight diversion later this week to consider just how toxic the Theranos environment was and how a toxic environment can translate to teams. Just calling a culture toxic is easy, but recognizing the attributes of a toxic environment is more complicated.  The most onerous attributes are:

  1. Talking about values without acting on those values generates cognitive dissonance.  In this scenario, the espoused values are interpreted as window dressing and become a source of derision.  When an organization doesn’t have solid values, individual will substitute their own set of values which often causes discord between people and teams.
  2. Inability to speak truth to power causes problems not to be exposed and therefore not addressed.  When a problem becomes so severe that they are surfaced, they often come as a surprise to those in power (some of the problems are a reflection willful ignorance).
  3. Win at all cost mentality leads to cutting corners, cheating and in some cases lying to achieve an end.  If the only thing that matters is the outcome all sorts of poor behaviors can occur. Theranos, Wells Fargo, Enron, and many front page stories chronicle the problems with a win at all cost mentality.  
  4. Dysfunctional internal competition generates an environment where backstabbing, gossip, and incivility occur and are encouraged. These behaviors are bad.
  5. Lack of clarity of vision leads to a lack of focus and conflicting goals within an organization.  Conflicting goals leads to conflict and strife as organizational components and teams struggle for resources.
  6. Silos keep people from collaborating, sharing knowledge and generate we-they behavior.  Silos cost money but worse, silos make other in the organization the enemy.
  7. Pessimism causes a “we can’t do it attitude” which makes getting anything done more difficult.  In some instances pessimism, and its cousin fear, dampens innovation as a nostalgia for the good old days creates friction.
  8. Lying erodes believability.  I was listening to a recent episode of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History: Addendum about the Vietnam War.  Mr Carlin and his guest suggested that the mistruths about the state of the war exacerbated the distrust of government and the antiwar sentiment. Lying destroys trust inside and outside any organization. 

Each of these attributes is a reflection and the cause of a toxic environment. Each of these attributes individually can over time prove fatal to an organization.  In most teams and organizations these attributes slowly evolve and then a tipping point where they become self-fulfilling. Each attribute causes other problem. For example, abandoning values enable lying and pessimism. Silos lead to a we-they perspective and dysfunctional competition leading to an erosion of values and lying.   Any of the attributes of a toxic environment needs to be addressed relentlessly and possibly mercilessly.