I’ve been thinking about toxic cultures a lot lately.
A culture can be defined as: “The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group. Also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time” (Source).
And toxic can be defined as: “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation” (Source).
Combine the two and you might end up with a culture hell bent on sucking the life out of anyone participating in it. That’s my definition anyway.
I’ve had my share of encounters with toxic cultures and personalities. Encounters with toxic personalities can be very painful. I know for me it takes 2-3 days to recover from such an encounter. Such encounters don’t have to be very long to cause serious pain and suffering. Often such toxic encounters are more of the hit and run variety.
A toxic culture takes such things and normalizes them so that the people who are part of a culture come to expect that toxic encounters are what is considered normal.
They aren’t. We should never allow ourselves to be convinced that toxic encounters are normal or to be expected.
Toxic cultures show up in a variety of ways and places. I have encountered toxic cultures in workplaces, politics, churches, and common run of the mill places like grocery stores. You can actually feel the toxicity when you encounter a toxic culture. It seeps through everything and impacts everyone in the culture.
The dangerous part of a toxic culture is that there is no escape from it. In many ways it’s like being in a pool. As soon as there is a toxic released into the pool, the entire pool becomes infected. There aren’t toxin free and toxin loaded areas of a pool.
Toxic cultures arise for a variety of reasons. The biggest reason they persist is because no one is often willing to confront such a culture and purge it of the toxins. A toxic culture will be filled with passive aggressive comments and behavior. It will look narcissistic – puffing itself up while being full of shame. It will avoid conflict and seek ways to avoid or stifle conflict without actual resolution. It will engage in dehumanizing behavior and language. It will be controlling and coercive. A toxic culture and personalities try to hide and be hidden from sight. It will be full of fear.
A healthy culture looks very different. A healthy culture is not based on fear. It will deal with conflict in a healthy and mature way so that there is a resolution to the matter. A healthy culture will seek unity of purpose, while also seeing diversity of opinion and beliefs as a strength that allows the culture to have a wider perspective. A healthy culture is founded on trust. A healthy culture will ask questions and express doubts in a healthy way. A healthy culture is transparent.
All it takes is one person to start to move a toxic culture towards a healthy culture. Someone who refuses to see pain and suffering inflicted on their fellow human beings as normal or expected. But this person must have resolve. Because a toxic culture will push back and try to get a healthy person to cave.
Here’s what happens when someone works to move a culture from toxic to healthier – they will meet resistance. Toxic cultures believe their own lies and assumptions that they are the norm. Why would anyone change when they see themselves as the norm? Culture doesn’t change easily under healthy conditions. It is even more resistant when the culture is toxic.
But understand something. Toxic cultures are conflict adverse. Let me explain. A toxic personality will create and persist in conflict with someone only if they sense they can be in control and get what they want easily – which is the other person giving up and complying with the toxic personality. They will scatter and run, often quietly, if they recognize they can’t win the conflict. They are afraid of conflict in that way. Better to run and try to control somewhere else, rather than risk being exposed – showing the real challenge for a toxic person – that they have a lack of self-confidence, are full of shame, and self-hatred. The only way toxic personalities cope with this is by bringing others down to their level. In a way, it is their way of projecting the pain they are suffering by making whoever they encounter feel their pain. That doesn’t make it right of course.
Toxic cultures and toxic personalities are, at their core, cultures and personalities of pain and suffering. And they live by the motto that misery loves company. They are caught in bondage to pain and suffering and think that the only way out is to cause others to be in pain and suffering. But all that does is expand pain and suffering.
Toxic cultures cause serious and long term damage in so many ways. And they should be ended. But that work isn’t for everyone. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to just walk away, for your own health. But if you are up to it, you can begin to change a toxic culture into something much healthier.
What do you do when you encounter a toxic culture and want to change it:
- Make sure you are healthy. A culture is only as healthy as the healthiest person in it. And it is as toxic as the most toxic person in it.
- Make sure there are people in a toxic culture who want to change it. You can’t change anything if you are the only one who desires a change. Most people in a toxic culture feel trapped and alone, which is why they don’t initiate change.
- Have support. Because you will have conflict and suffer from attacks. You need people to support you in this journey because it won’t be easy.
- Give yourself time to heal when the attacks come. Have someone trusted that you can talk with, find ways that are healing to your body, mind, and spirit.
- Envision what a healthy culture looks like and share that vision with others in the culture and invite them to envision what a healthy culture looks like. Over and over and over again. Because you are up against a something that won’t give up easily.
- Resolve to go forward with creating an environment that is healthier. You aren’t going to get everyone on board, so don’t try to gain consensus. Work with those that are willing. And find ways around the ones who are resistant.
- Celebrate health when it comes and starts to take shape. Recognize when toxic personalities are absent and when healthier habits are forming. Small changes can make a big difference.
- Never chase after toxic personalities that leave to try to get them back. If you do, you are giving them control to determine what the culture will be like, and they will try to revert the culture back to a toxic culture.
There is hope. A toxic culture isn’t normal. And you don’t have to put up with it. You are not alone. A healthier culture won’t magically make everything better. If you shift from a toxic culture to a healthier culture understand a few things – you’ll probably have a period of time in which you’ll have fewer people because the toxic personalities has slinked away. You’ll have times when you start to see other toxic pieces that you didn’t know existed. The resistance you encounter will most likely be indirect resistance, which is harder to tackle and deal with.
And those resisting will remain even though they don’t like the changes going one. This last one never made sense to me. But I’ve started to understand why. It’s because those that are resisting change from a toxic to healthier culture have an assumption that what they value is the norm by which everything else should be measured. They see no need to change, and so you, the person seeking change are the outsider who is messing with the status quo. You are the intruder. They will not cooperate with you. They expect you to give up and to comply. They own the culture. You are trying to steal it.
Have faith. Keep going. Keep pushing. Don’t quit. Don’t become toxic in response. Keep in mind the goal – health. Do healthy things. Build healthy relationships and create an environment where health can grow. Do it in spite of the toxins present. Show resolve. And never back down. No matter how hard it gets. It will be worth it.
We live in tough times