I want to start by saying right from the get-go that a culture of safety is always more desirable than a culture of fear. That being said, it is possible to create a corrupted or toxic culture that gives the illusion of safety. Sometimes this false safety puts people in danger. Other times, it is the organization that is at risk.
From toxic start to soured safety
Toxic safety usually stems from a misunderstanding of what safety is. People coming from organizations that were run by fear often overcompensate when they come in contact with the idea of a safe environment. Their focus is on trying to make themselves safe rather than creating a safe environment for all. At other times, herd anonymity or aligning to a shared “party line” is confounded with safety.
A well-meant but clumsy implementation and overcompensation are responsible for a large number of toxic starts. It is also common to see in “reformed” organizations the original culture of fear being covered with a fresh coat of paint. The same (or worse) practices are still used “for your own safety”.
In other cases, a safety culture can become toxic over time. I call that souring. It is a rarer event, but it can happen if there is a large change of people coupled with poor understanding or poor adhesion to the culture. Souring can also be done deliberately by a strong manipulator.
The four types of toxic safety
I have encountered my fair share of toxic safety in my career. Over the years I started to lump them into four categories I named the Möbius Ring, the Untouchables, the Dead Flame and the Kumbaya Effect.
The Möbius Ring
Whether they are run by committee or whether decision-making requires consensus, some organizations seems to talk in circle forever with accountability to move anything forward. I call this type of safety The Möbius Ring since no matter where you try to go, you always end up in the same place.
The toxic safety in the Möbius Ring resides in the large number of “decision-makers”. Meetings filled with scores of people, committees within committees, large number of people with veto, and the comfort of anonymity that comes from being hidden in a large group of people.
Meetings are all-important in Möbius Ring organizations. These meetings gobble up most, if not all, time that should be spent of doing things. To the end of my days I’ll get hives attacks every time I hear “This is a meeting. It’s neither the time nor the place to decide anything”.
Open organizations (like Red Hat or closer to home, Quantum Monkeys) rely on debates of ideas to function well, but open themselves to the dangers of spiraling arguments that never get resolved. This is a form of Möbius Ring. These organizations need people who keep an eye on these arguments and who can break them when they stop being productive.
Luckily, the Möbius Ring is not very damaging to people. It’s worst problem is terrible inefficiency which can, however, be fatal to organizations. Arguing oneself to death is the sad fate of many well-meaning socially-conscious groups who adopt egalitarian or blameless management systems.
A little over 2000 years ago, in the Roman republic, the tribune of the pleb was a political office open to commoners. The pleb had the power to convene and preside over people’s assembly, intervene on the behalf of the people on legal matters and to veto the consuls and other magistrates (who were nobles) when the interests of the common people were endangered. As progressive as it was for the era, the tribune of the plebs was not a very popular man with noble politicians. To make sure the tribune would live for more than five minutes after being nominated, he was made sacrosanct, meaning that anyone harming him or preventing him from moving freely (most of his powers required him to be physically present at the scene) could be put to death. Now that’s power!
Untouchables-style toxic safety grants almost similar powers to people. Under this type of culture, people are not only never blamed but also never held accountable for anything. It can quickly become seen as a right rather than a privilege, turning any discussion following a problem into debates about the necessity to protect people from the consequences of their actions.
The right to fail is crucial in a a culture of safety. But accountability is also crucial. Without it, the organization will stop being inviting for people who want to accomplish things and become a haven for those who wishes to hide behind a shield.
This type of culture is not truly safe. It almost always leads to heavy micromanagement since if you cannot hold people accountable, at least make sure they never do anything wrong. It often creates tensions between upper management and the rest of the company, sometimes degenerating into an open war and the annihilation of any sense of safety for anyone.
The Dead Flame
Sometimes safety is confused with an aversion to risk. Experiments are forbidden, best practices are imposed, countless studies are required before any changes are green-lighted, review committees roams the land and mediocrity becomes the enforced norm.
Mediocrity can be defined as something “just above unacceptable”. Mediocre is the worst anyone can be before getting in trouble. It might not sound that bad, but most people do not want to dedicate their lives to being “just above unacceptable” in something they love to do. Those who will settle for mediocrity are likely not the kind of people you want to hire.
A risk-aversion culture also kills innovation. It is not anti-innovation, but sees innovation as something done by someone else (dumb enough to take risks) and that you copy after it has proven itself.
The Dead Flame takes its name because it will inexorably grind to oblivion any passion, creativity, interest and will. You end up with office zombies so dead inside they won’t even bother looking for brains.
The Kumbaya Effect
Ever met an organization where the culture looks so safe, understanding, warm and fuzzy that it is almost too good to be true? Sorry: it is probably the case.
I named the Kumbaya Effect after a well-known gospel-turned-campfire song, popular in scout circles. It is nice and soothing and helps create that feeling of oneness within the group. It draws people in by playing on their desire to be included and appreciated, and keeps them there by fear of exclusion from this safe cocoon. It is so seductive that I believe it to be the most dangerous of all toxic safety cultures.
Environments under the Kumbaya Effect can be quite nice: lots of very helpful people, lots of love and understanding, lots on bonding and lots of harmony. It is very nurturing. Unfortunately, it also has absolutely no tolerance for dissension.
In groups under the Kumbaya Effect, every member is free to have his own opinions, as long as those opinions follow the group-think. Dissension is viewed as something bad, and reactions can range from pity to incomprehension. Still, the group will react with love and support. There will be displays of patience for this bad behavior, accompanied with offers of counselling and coaching to cure those heretical ideas and rejoin the group-think.
In the most benign of groups under the Kymbaya Effects, all members are genuinely well-meaning. They truly believe in the good of their high level of harmony and reinforce those ideas with peer pressure. With a bit of luck they will simply be ineffective and stifle personal growth.
In other groups, the Kumbaya Effect takes a darker side. All it needs is a manipulative individual who will use the Kumbaya Effect to control the group and squash any dissension with love and peer pressure rather brute force. That’s the modus operandi of cult leaders.
The Kumbaya Effect creates a toxic safety by railroading your thought and by-eroding your individuality and critical sense. It accomplishes that by giving you that sense of group acceptance, appreciation, love and harmony we are all looking for. The Kumbaya Effect kills you, and you thank it for the opportunity. It is that seductive. It is that dangerous.
Reacting to toxic culture
Caught early, toxic safety can be redeemed, especially when it is the result or clumsiness or misunderstanding. It is important that people in a safety culture stay vigilant for signs of problems.
Swift reaction is necessary. Keep in mind that while the best reaction is bringing the issue to the group, a toxic safety culture is never really safe. Being a whistleblower can expose you to the same kind of dangerous attention that will get you in trouble in a culture of fear.
If you notice a problem, chances are you are not the only one. Find allies first, then try to rectify the situation. Since most of the time the toxicity is a matter of misunderstanding or clumsiness, change does not have to be belligerent. Improving education and awareness can go a long way.
Living in a toxic culture?
I outlined four types of toxic cultures, but you might have encountered different ones. I am always interested in discovering new types of cultures as well as how they are handled by organizations.
Feel free to use the comment below to make us discover different types of toxic cultures, or discuss your experiences with these types of cultures.
I am a futurist, system thinker and organizational transformation expert, dedicated to easing our transition into Society 5.0. I am available as a speaker through the think tank Hivernité (www.hivernite.ca) as well as a trainer and organizational coach through Moabi Formations (www.moabiformation.com).