Toxic Cultures and Reality

I have lived through multiple toxic cultures in my life. It’s easy to say, “just quit,” or “just go to HR,” but—for various reasons—these are not always a good solution. For instance, if you are in the military, “just quit” is not, precisely, an option. So how should you deal with these sorts of bad situations?

Start here: you are not going to change the culture. Just like I tell my daughters not to date guys so they can “fix” them, I have never seen anyone “fix” a culture through any sort of “mass action.” You are not going to “win” by going to the boss, or by getting someone from the outside to force everyone to change. You are not going to change the culture by griping about it. Believe me, I’ve tried all these things. They don’t (really) work.

Given these points, what can you do?

Start with a large dose of humility. First, you are probably a part of a number of toxic cultures yourself, and you probably even contribute at least some amount of the poison. Second, you are almost always limited in your power to change things; your influence, no matter how right you are, is not what you think it is.

In other words, start thinking smaller. Start thinking about what you can change. If you cannot change the culture, what can you change?

How about a single person?

So when you face a toxic culture, start here: with one person who you think will listen, someone you think you can help to be a better person. Do not allow this to turn into a griping club. Do not make this into us versus them. If you do, you are adding more toxins, rather than removing them. Rather, have a positive attitude, and work to find ways to help one person climb out of the culture that surrounds you. If you and this second person then find a third and fourth person, you are likely to be at the point of reaching the entire “shop” in much shorter time than you might otherwise think.

If the culture doesn’t change, that’s okay—you’ve made one more connection. Ultimately, people are more important than companies or cultures.

Now, am I saying you should never pull the HR card? Definitely not—there are certainly times when ethical norms have been breached to the point that it is time to take a larger scale action. I would just caution you not to expect HR to resolve the problem. HR is generally there to protect the company, not you. This might sound cynical, but I’ve encountered this enough times “up close and personal” to know that it might always be true, but it is true often enough that you should not count on HR riding in like a knight on a white horse to rescue you, personally.

Overall, remember this—it is not companies that matter. It is not technologies that matter. Cultures are not even what matter in the long run. What matters is people. If you lose sight of that, you have become a part of the problem, rather than a part of the solution.


  1. Andras on 30 January 2017 at 4:44 pm

    Interesting and valuable opinion for me, i’m just in some toxic group and thinking how to go forward. Thanks!