Leadership Advisory, Executive Mentor, HR Strategist, Culture Change, Wellness 

The word of the year is….’Toxic’​


It was announced recently that the British Publisher, Oxford Dictionaries had made ‘Toxic’ it’s annual word of the year, arguing that “the sheer scope of its application made it the standout choice,” and it had “truly taken off into the realm of metaphor, as people had reached for the word to describe workplaces, schools, cultures, relationships and stress.” [1]

‘Toxicity’ in these areas has been around for generations. What interests me is the word’s current ubiquity in the press and particularly with regards to describing cultures. We read about toxic cultures daily in commentary on the sporting industry, politics, business and community groups. Most recently we’ve been hearing about it from the Banking Royal Commission.

In my experience, toxic cultures start with a failing of leadership and a misalignment with community or employee expectations of what is acceptable. Leaders set the culture. Ken Henry, Chair of National Australia Bank summed it up in yesterday’s AFR[2] saying “the biggest driver of culture in an organisation has been leaders, the behaviour of leaders. It is about character, not just performance.” He has in this sentence, highlighted the essence of the problem. To get better cultures, you need leaders becoming better people. This is the new leadership development priority if we wish to see the end of toxic cultures.

The internet and social media have raised our awareness of what good looks like, what we should demand, and what we should not tolerate. We now have a voice to express expectations to those leaders. We now recognise that there is a better way of operating and interacting and we expect kindness, authenticity, vulnerability, and optimism from our leaders. We want to work in cultures that feed our soul and fill our hearts, not sap us of energy and joy.

The company/ workforce relationship is like any relationship – if the trust falls, the respect disappears and the communication drops, the relationship festers and the culture starts to rot. And just like the tale of the frog slowing cooking in boiling water, toxicity in the culture moves in so subtly and slowly, it’s imperceptible. Until one day it’s not.

It is so easy to sit on our high horses and throw rocks at our leaders from afar. But can we judge toxicity in leaders and others if we are not first willing to look at it in ourselves? Can we expect more from our leaders if we are not willing to banish our own toxicity? As our mothers used to say, ‘people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’. The worst toxicity is that which is present in our own heads and which drives most of our behaviour that we are not proud of. Most people’s number one toxic thought is some variation of “I’m not good enough” and it is this ‘inner bully’ that plays havoc, keeping people playing small and safe, or worse, playing a role that is not true to who they really are.

These toxic thoughts can also make people mean and delight in judging others and bringing them down. The rise in trolling on social media shows how widespread and insidious this judgement and criticism of others actually is. Has this new breed of bully just emerged or was it always there, just with a new platform? Bret Stephens in The New York Times says, “Tweeting and trolling are easy. Mastering the art of conversation and measured debate is hard.”[3] If everyone focused on silencing their own internal bully and putting their energy into positive communication the old fashioned way, I believe much of the perceived toxicity would dissipate.

In my view, unless people are sociopathic, they rarely set out to be ‘toxic’, rather they just have a self awareness gap between how they think they are presenting to the world and what impact they are actually having. This self-awareness gap only gets closed when we seek feedback on our blind spots and commit to eliminating them.

I believe the extensive use of the word ‘Toxic’ is a sign of our times. People are starting to stand up against bad behaviour, self absorption, and narcissism. We are wanting a better world and demanding more of the human race. Lets hope the word for 2019 represents progress in this area. My hope is the word is ‘Joy’.

As a leader, consider these questions:

Are you aware of the toxic thoughts in your head? Do they drive unintended behaviour in your leadership?

Customers will never be happier than your employees. How happy are your employees and are they representing the culture you intend?

Just as with any relationship, how would you rate how well you have built trust and respect with your employees, and are you communicating effectively?

If you’re reading this and it has resonated, and you would like to learn more about how Metamorph Co can assist you and your leadership team, I would love to hear from you.

[1] McKirdy, E. (2018, November 15). Toxic: Oxford Dictionaries sums up the mood of 2018 with word of the year. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com

[2] Thomson, J. (2018, November 27). Banking royal commission: NAB Chair Ken Henry goes to the heart of Hayne’s problem. Australian Financial Review. Retrieved November 27, 2018, from afr.com

[3] Stephens, B. (2018, November 16). How Plato Foresaw Facebook’s Folly. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com