The turnover costs due to toxic work cultures in the U.S.A. alone between 2014 and 2019 amount to US$223 bn.

“For in our shrinking globe, man can ill afford cultural illiteracy.”


Toxic work cultures are responsible for a turnover costs of US$223 billion in the U.S.A. alone from 2014 to 2019. Seventy percent of employees believe managers define the workplace culture. Simultaneously, 6 out of 10 who quit their jobs say it was because of their manager.  Something is wrong with managers’ skills to build and maintain healthy workplace cultures. It is time to revisit organizational culture.

Was Nike too self-critical?

"We have a culture where we are incredibly self-critical, we don't get comfortable with our success."

Mark Parker, CEO, Nike
Nike CEO apologizes

Somewhere down the line, Nike management did not translate the theme ‘do not get comfortable with our success’ into a hostile culture.

Organizational Culture Revisited

Ah, organizational culture, that intangible yet ubiquitous force whose presence tends to elude everyone but the onlooker and who nevertheless determines every member’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, or inactions. You know, that thing that eats strategy for breakfast.

However, everyone aspiring to design and develop better cultures must analyze an existing one and understand its connections with and reciprocal influence on the micro- and meso-levels of an organization and its ecosystems.

Toxic work cultures versus healthy ones
Toxic work cultures versus healthy ones.

Additionally, one must comprehend how the macro-level influences organizational culture and how meta-organizations emerge.  While vigorous debates over a universally accepted definition of corporate culture continue to this day, and therefore, there is none, it is possible to form an educated opinion about culture.

Bring five people together for a couple of months to solve a problem or to perform a task, pay them, and leave them to figure out the rest, and culture emerges by default. While this may seem like a ludicrous idea, Schmidt and Rosenberg confirm the widespread occurrence of culture by default in their book How Google Works and posit that “most companies’ culture just happens; no one plans it.” When culture just happens, toxic work cultures often seem to be the result of not planning.

Simultaneously, the authors point out that not planning culture reduces one’s chances of success significantly, and thus they suggest that culture by design is possible.  Now, before you get practical with culture, you need to get philosophical. It is, as you will see, your philosophy that drives your practice, even if you think of philosophy as nonsense and utter waste of time.

In his original 1988 essay Organizational Culture, Schein defines the abstract, wholistic phenomenon as:

“1) A pattern of basic assumptions, 2) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, 3) as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, 4) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore 5) is to be taught to new members as the 6) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”


Culture is a property of a group that learns ways to survive outside challenges, threats, and risks –cut-throat competition, pandemics, regulations– and inside integration issues  –get the rookies in line, too many or no captains on the boat– that provoke perceptive, cognitive, and emotional retorts.  What binds a group is an impactfulness of learning experiences and its stability over time until it leads to: “That is the way we do things around here.”

 Then, culture drops out of awareness until someone or something calls attention to it. Within a large group, a sub-group can have its own culture or subculture, a small group of people with its own set of beliefs, values, and assumptions, usually developed in response to challenges that differ from those tackled by other groups. And then, the way we do things around here (e.g., in accounting) is quite different from the way they do things over there (e.g., in sales). 

Put otherwise, we may share the same logo and slogan, but what we believe, value, and assume over here is not what you think, prize, and hold over there.  All of this begs two questions:

  1. Do you honestly believe your company slogans?
  2. And how many of your colleagues do?

Both those over here and over there uttering the same slogans and waving the same logo serve the same customer. For now, we leave her out of the picture. Instead, remember that culture has a time component; it emerges from a challenge and assumptions about how to tackle it and strengthens as a group proves solutions right and defines group membership criteria. The learning of shared beliefs results in automatic patterns of perceiving, thinking, and behaving. Toxic work cultures, therefore, can sustain when the shared ways of behaving are unhealthy.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts; your thoughts become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your values; your values become your destiny.”

On the other hand, Robbins and Judge define organizational culture or O.C. as “a system of shared meaning held by members that distinguishes the organization from other organizations,” and, in the case of subcultures, from one group to other groups. Roberts defines O.C. as “not a passive force but an active discipline with a set of deliberate practices and mindsets. It does not preserve the organization from the forces of change but makes it resilient, adaptable, and always moving forward.” As such, one can at least avoid toxic work cultures.

While Schein’s and Robert’s definitions point more to problem-solving competencies and survival through learning and development, the description of O.C. posited by Robbins and Judge promotes differentiation. The definitions have a shared set of understandings and practices on the one hand and values, assumptions, beliefs, and mindsets on the other. Does one hand trump the other?

Icebergs and Onions

In his 1976 book, Hall likened culture to an iceberg to explain that some parts of a society’s culture are visible while others remain hidden under the water surface. Only by deep-diving to the bottom of the iceberg can one uncover the values and beliefs that underlie what is visible: behavior and artifacts. The way we do things around here is visible to the onlooker or the newbie.  Why we do the things we do is invisible: values and unconscious thought patterns.

In contrast, Hofstede makes an onion the analogy of national culture. As one peels each layer, one travels from the visible and the conscious (symbols and heroes; logos and visionary founders) to the onion’s invisible and unconscious core: values. The practices of an organization that cross-section the onion from the outer layer to the heart of national cultures is what Hofstede calls organizational culture. Organizations, therefore, are subcultures themselves.

“When you are in and of [a] culture –as fish are in and of water—it is often difficult or even impossible to see that culture.”

While in 1976, Hall thought the world was shrinking, it now is evident that the world has shrunk, and his call for cultural literacy is now more relevant than ever. In our globalized and interconnected always-on world, millions of people work in global settings and see everything from their cultural perspectives, that is, in a state of cultural unconsciousness.

The most critical paradigms and rules that govern our behavior, and rule our lives, operate below the level of conscious awareness. One automatically treats what is most naturally one’s own -the culture of one’s youth—as inborn. Such automatism is, of course, a fallacy: since 2015, we know that the nature-nurture ratio is, on average, fifty-fifty.

However, what is true is that as specific motivational and cognitive processes repeat and continue to provide results, they become unconscious. Moreover, about ninety-five percent of our cognition –thoughts, emotions, learning—occurs without our awareness. Toxic work cultures do not escape this. 

Reflect now, very consciously aware that most learning occurs unconsciously, on the fact that culture develops through a process of learning, and you will realize that culture has critical implications on any business. Yours included.

We invite you to write down three reflections and implications you have identified for your business and share them. Your anonymity is guaranteed; we ask for no personal data. But we are enormously grateful for your thoughts. Regularly, we organize online Customer Culture Dialogues, your thoughts and reflections inspire us when choosing relevant topics.

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