Why You Will Never Succeed In A Toxic Organization; Why Weasels Are The Secret Ingredient

7 Things That You Won’t See In A Toxic Organization 

  1. Clear Strategy – strategy is always emergent, consequently the business strategy, the organizational strategy and the people strategy are always in flux.
  2. Explicit Values – if the values were known, no one would be a stakeholder.
  3. Consistent Organizational Design – the organizational design reflects personalities rather than work.
  4. Explicit Processes –  work is controlled by gatekeepers; process are not document or so out of date as to be irrelevant.
  5. Feedback – toxic organizations do not seek employee feedback or care about the overall work climate, human capital is not valued.
  6. Learning – organizational learning is non-existent and there is no personal development – there is only compliance.
  7. Effective Teams – these do not exist within a toxic organization only alliances of convenience – there are no shared goals and work, interdependency, and mutual accountability – there is not trust.


When I was young, my Dad told me about why he had only worked at only one company his entire adult life (the Budd Co. in Philadelphia). He said that if I take care of the company, the company will take care of me. He said this so often that as a young adult finishing school and heading into the workforce, it was my mantra… take care of the company and the company will take care of you!

Many years later as an organizational development consultant for the Walt Disney Company, I helped facilitate the Company’s first major workforce reduction (WFR) and for me and for many of my friends and peers that were swept up in the ripples of the WFR, the age old employment covenant was broken forever, and whether you were a victim of the change or merely a survivor like myself, the implications were the same … my eyes were wide open and all the adages and metaphors came rushing into my head: the emperor has no new clothes and I took the “RED” pill from Morpheus (The Matrix, 1999).


What I learned from this experience was that even if you do a good job of taking care of the company, the company may not be able to take care of you. In the case of Disney, it is important to note that the WFR was handled in a manner that valued the dignity of Disney employees and was implemented in a manner that was thoughtful and respectful. Human capital was valued and employees were treated with care and concern!

For every company the calibre of the Walt Disney Company, there are multiple companies that thrive on fear and intimidation. Schein (2010) proffers that leadership’s top responsibility is to establish the culture of the organization. One of the immutable truths I learned as an organization development consultant is that organizations are perfectly designed for the results they experience. Others have made this same observation and have voiced it over the years including Tom Northrup, a former CEO (and author of  Five Hidden Mistakes CEOs Make, How To Unlock the Secrets That Drive Growth and Profitability). So when one finds themselves in an organization that thrives on fear, and intimidation the chance that change will not occur from within is highly unlikely; change must come from the very top. Even executives (vice presidents and directors) are ultimately powerless to affect change that will eliminate the toxicity.

You are probably saying WAIT, that can’t be true, good leadership at any level can have a positive affect. While there is some truth to that wisdom, in most instances local change efforts are not sustainable because there are agents, employees throughout the organization who survive and even thrive in toxic environments. They are often imbedded in staff roles such as human resources, facilities or purchasing or they may just have strong ties to the parent organization. These agents appear to diligently perform their roles, yet their purpose is much more sinister; it is to see all local change efforts fail and the status quo return.  In one company, a director announced to the employees of a division that was reorganized out of existence “I won the office pool on how long it would take for this division to be eliminated; I had a year, my boss had three months” while another a senior manager chided, “…if it were up to me you’d be out of the office tomorrow” and even a president from another division communicated to a mid-level employee in a division that was closing by saying, “this doesn’t matter, YOU (referring to the organization?) don’t exist anymore”. Of course this was said several days ahead of the actual organizational change. 


Toxicity continually grows as these agents appear to acquiesce to local change efforts but below the surface, they network and scheme to maintain the culture. New leaders may suspect nefarious agents but the organization limits the new leaders power to find and address their performance by limiting their actual span of control and leveraging existing practices. Nefarious agents often control access to vital organizational functions and provide a link to organizational knowledge, all the time working behind the scenes to disrupt, delay and ultimately see initiatives fail. 

You may be wondering how do toxic organizations survive. They survive because they burn resources and money exploits weak characters. In tough economic times people stay with toxic organizations because they because they need employment. During economic boom compensation flows . The supply of potential employees is almost endless and the supply of clients and customers is global, but eventually there is a time of reckoning, which will be covered in future posts.


John Reneski

John is a professor of marketing and an organization development consultant. He will complete an EdD in Leadership and Technology Management in early 2015.




2 thoughts on “Why You Will Never Succeed In A Toxic Organization; Why Weasels Are The Secret Ingredient

  1. MandyA says:

    Great article, John! This is actually very timely for me with the organization I work for as we are experiencing toxicity in our work environment from various places. One of the things that always amazes me is just how many companies actually do continue to survive for long periods of time even though they have no clear strategy; they typically live day by day and get by with the seat of their pants but are not often greatly successful (because they’re without an overarching plan).
    You make a good point “…that change will not occur from within is highly unlikely; change must come from the very top.” The challenge I have seen from this, however, is that the change that must come from the top is not often the change that the top wants to make; they’re typically focused only on making the changes THEY are comfortable with making or they want to make them because that’s what others in their industry are doing (not knowing that others in their industry are having the exact same problems). They’re not making the changes that everyone below them have suggested they make & know that need to be made in order to not only lead by example but to make progress within the company. Those at the top who continue not to focus on the true changes that need to be made will continually struggle, continually lose good employees, continually lose revenue & could ultimately end up closing their doors.


    1. John Reneski says:

      I agree which is why succeeding in a toxic organization is almost an impossibility unless you succumb to the toxicity (“Luke I am your father”). That is not to say that there are short term exceptions. Extremely bright individuals join toxic organizations thinking that they can make meaningful and lasting change, only in the end to realize that they just throwing starfish back into the sea. I once had a wonderful leader that told me she re-evaluates her employment status every three years. I think good leaders (not the CEO) tenure in an organization is between 3 to 5 years. Consequently be cautious of those leaders that have a longer standing. Its interesting that sometime even the CEO is not powerful enough to completely change the culture. Sometimes CEO power is limited or divided by the Board of Directors (BOD) and the Chairman. While not examples of toxic organizations the following two examples demonstrate how even at the CEO level power can be limited. For example Michael Eisner lost power near the end of his tenure as CEO. His power was limited by the BOD and divided between him and the Chairman, Senator George Mitchell. Carly Firorina held both positions at Hewlett Packard yet the BOD limited her ability to lead and she was eventually released. Sometimes the only option is to leave (however, I am working on a survival guide post).


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