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Oper­a­tional Excellence

Spoil­er alert: Tox­ic work­places aren’t just caused by ‘bad’ employees



Debashis Behera

Senior Consultant

Peter Flem­ing, author of Mythol­o­gy of Work: How Cap­i­tal­ism Per­sists Despite Itself, once wrote about a friend’s work­place turn­ing tox­ic after dra­con­ian per­for­mance mea­sures were imposed. Imper­son­al hier­ar­chies mul­ti­plied and bul­ly­ing became rife.

“Fear per­vad­ed the atmos­phere of the place. And then staff start­ed to drop like flies, get­ting seri­ous­ly ill,” he wrote.

We’ve prob­a­bly worked in envi­ron­ments where the team dynam­ics were not always healthy. Often, work­places like these suf­fered drops in engage­ment and efficiency. 

Trou­bling­ly, some “man­age­ment experts” are rec­om­mend­ing that com­pa­nies fix the prob­lem by focus­ing on indi­vid­u­als: Which employ­ees are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on their per­for­mance? If you have “tox­ic” employ­ees – weed them out for dismissal.

This is a mistake.

By plac­ing greater empha­sis on the per­son­al­i­ties of indi­vid­u­als, an organ­i­sa­tion may miss the prob­lems embed­ded in the man­age­ment cul­ture, sys­tems and processes.

The rea­sons behind any per­ceived mediocre per­for­mance was like­ly to be much deeper.

Con­sid­er the whole

When com­pa­nies focus on the impact of indi­vid­ual employ­ees and ignore oth­er fac­tors, they risk miss­ing fun­da­men­tal struc­tur­al issues.

Yes, indi­vid­ual per­for­mance and atti­tudes do con­tribute to an organisation’s out­put. How­ev­er, it’s dif­fi­cult to mea­sure an individual’s per­for­mance against over­all pro­duc­tiv­i­ty – espe­cial­ly in a shared office or pro­duc­tion envi­ron­ment. An organisation’s per­for­mance is usu­al­ly depen­dent on oth­er fac­tors besides indi­vid­ual contributions.

A pos­i­tive, smart and ener­getic work­force is not a cure-all either. It may mask major prob­lems that sud­den­ly emerge when “good” work­ers leave. 

As con­sul­tants, we had come across cas­es where good employ­ees, frus­trat­ed that noth­ing was done to cor­rect seri­ous sys­temic prob­lems, left. They were usu­al­ly the ones pick­ing up the slack. 

What caus­es tox­ic workplaces?

It is impor­tant to under­stand the fac­tors shap­ing an organisation’s work cul­ture before try­ing to deter­mine the impact of a neg­a­tive organ­i­sa­tion culture. 

Some fac­tors include: 

  • The organisation’s industry 
  • The organisation’s lev­el of matu­ri­ty or the stage of development 
  • The own­er­ship struc­ture and the man­age­ment style – does the com­pa­ny have a promoter-driven or pro­fes­sion­al man­age­ment style?
  • The organisation’s sys­tems and processes 

A good exam­ple to illus­trate this is how the work cul­ture of a fresh start up in the tech­nol­o­gy space can be sig­nif­i­cant­ly dif­fer­ent from that of an estab­lished steel man­u­fac­tur­ing company. 

On the sur­face, nei­ther work cul­ture is nec­es­sar­i­ly good nor bad. How­ev­er, cer­tain ele­ments can turn these work­places tox­ic. So, due dili­gence is need­ed to ensure that this does not happen. 

For exam­ple, the free­dom that employ­ees enjoy in a start-up, when over­done, can result in a lack of direc­tion and no sense of account­abil­i­ty. Sim­i­lar­ly, if too many con­trols are enforced in the highly-structured work­place of an estab­lished organ­i­sa­tion, it can inhib­it employ­ee poten­tial, cre­ativ­i­ty and turn humans into robots. 

In both sce­nar­ios, the organisation’s per­for­mance is at stake. 

Tox­ic to thriving

Here’s a bet­ter and more bal­anced approach to improve work­place pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and employ­ee sat­is­fac­tion: Focus on both col­lec­tive and indi­vid­ual inputs. Give a fair and mea­sured analy­sis of indi­vid­ual performances.

But first, a sol­id under­ly­ing frame­work of man­age­ment sys­tems and process­es must be set in place.

In our expe­ri­ence, when the right set-up is in place, man­agers can bet­ter focus on employ­ees whose con­tri­bu­tions fall short of expec­ta­tions and give them the sup­port they need to improve.

Here’s how you can set up the right foun­da­tion for a healthy workplace: 

1. Put the right man­age­ment sys­tems in place

When right man­age­ment sys­tems are in place, employ­ees will be able to excel at their jobs. This cre­ates a pos­i­tive envi­ron­ment where work­ers can realise their poten­tial while ensur­ing that fac­tors such as com­pen­sa­tion and per­for­mance incen­tives are addressed. 

2. Cre­ate an envi­ron­ment of contribution

Strong per­form­ers can have a strong impact on a team’s over­all per­for­mance. How­ev­er, it’s not wise to over-rely on the skills of a few indi­vid­u­als – it can cre­ate an unde­sir­able imbal­ance of pow­er. Instead, give every team mem­ber defined respon­si­bil­i­ties. That way, they can show­case their skills with­out get­ting overshadowed. 

Also, a team where every­one read­i­ly agrees to a view with­out much debate or delib­er­a­tion is more like­ly to end up strug­gling. A healthy amount of con­flict, with­out being over­ly con­fronta­tion­al, is always a wel­come team dynamic. 

To cre­ate such an envi­ron­ment, lead­ers must encour­age indi­vid­ual participation. 

3. Empow­er employ­ees with the right tools to succeed

Most organ­i­sa­tions have no trou­ble ensur­ing that a person’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions, expe­ri­ence and strengths will be the right fit for a depart­ment. How­ev­er, organ­i­sa­tions that pro­vide the tools and train­ing to enable employ­ees to suc­ceed in their aspi­ra­tions will be ahead of the pack.


Before putting the blame on indi­vid­u­als, it’s crit­i­cal for organ­i­sa­tions to per­form a thor­ough analy­sis of their oper­a­tions. Only then can they cre­ate sol­id man­age­ment sys­tems and process­es that they need to prosper.

The key is to focus on cre­at­ing and main­tain­ing oper­a­tions that will cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that can sup­port increased effi­cien­cy and a hap­pi­er, more pro­duc­tive workforce.

If you believe that your organ­i­sa­tion can do bet­ter, con­tact us to do a thor­ough analy­sis of your oper­a­tions that will help you build the foun­da­tion to succeed.


Debashis Behera

Senior Consultant

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