Toxic Culture: Myths and Truths

July 14, 2022

These days, it has already become commonplace to say that such and such organization has a toxic culture, blaming it and its leaders, naturally, for the high talent turnover rates.

And, as often happens at climactic moments, many go with the collective inertia, without much analysis or will, only to remain in the context validated by others. The same happens in the face of the simplistic categorization of what a toxic culture would be these days.

It is worth reminding, of course, that the adjective toxic has also evolved over centuries and decades. In olden days, captive slaves were accepted and desired in both the domestic and corporate environments, and were harshly punished to subject themselves to the abuses and whims of their cruel masters. In the earliest days of industrialization, in turn, enlightened and renaissance noblemen hired their poor workers under completely unsanitary conditions at their factories and mines. Still today, millions of workers around the planet continue working under precarious conditions, very distant from the best standards (that including the delivery person who brings your dinner on cold and rainy Sundays, thus insisting in highlighting that atrocities may be socially accepted when reasonably varnished).

Therefore, moving beyond the labor issues associated to unhealthiness and predatory exploitation, we may evaluate more subtle aspects usually related to the degrees of toxicity in corporate environments. Such aspects include, of course, leadership performance, management models, management processes and tools, incentive and reward schemes, organizational environment, team quality, and other variables.

A recent survey published by the MIT listed a toxic culture as one of the vectors behind mass layoff processes in the US, describing toxicity as failures to promote diversity-equity-inclusion, disrespect towards employees, unethical corporate behavior, absence of collaboration, and abusive management.

These are irrefutable factors associated to toxic environments these days – also "novel" factors of recent times in the face of the humanization of labor relations, with greater distance from the company-machine metaphor. One hundred years ago, they might not rank in the top 5. But they are today, exactly for all the changes in the world context companies are set in.

On the other hand, aspects related to aggressive performance goals, long working hours and the obligation of being physically present at the office, for instance, are not necessarily associated inexorably to toxic cultures. Quite the contrary; these are regarded as part of the corporate DNA in its many expressions. As such, we may live with more or less aggressive organizations in their ambitions, with longer or shorter shifts, with more in-person or virtual work routines, without such variables being directly associated to the degree of toxicity in the working environment.

In those cases, the toxic culture starts being expressed much more for the dissonance of individuals’ expectations, preferences and aspirations compared to their employment relations with organizations. We may see vibrant cultures with different nuances concerning central aspects of group modeling, respecting these days’ issues as boundary conditions. That way, we avoid putting everything in one adjective, without a systemic perspective and analytical vision of the corporate problem areas. After all, there is not a single winning DNA available for any one context.


Daniel Augusto Motta é Managing Partner e CEO da BMI Blue Management Institute. Doutor em Economia pela USP, Mestre em Economia pela FGV-EAESP e Bacharel em Economia pela USP. É Alumni OPM Harvard Business School. Atua também como Managing Partner da corporate venture capital WhiteFox sediada em San Francisco (EUA), como Senior Tupinambá Maverick na content tech Bossa.etc e com Membro do Conselho de Administração da Afferolab. Também atua como Diretor de Planejamento Estratégico da UNIBES e Membro do Conselho Deliberativo do MASP. Foi Membro-Fundador da Sociedade Brasileira de Finanças. Foi Professor nos MBAs da Fundação Dom Cabral, Insper, FGV, ESPM e PUC-SP. É autor de diversos artigos publicados por Valor Econômico, EXAME, VocêSA e Folha de São Paulo, e também tem três artigos publicados pela Harvard Business Review Brasil. É autor dos livros best-sellers A Liderança Essencial, Anthesis e Data Insights.