– and how do we survive in it?

Solving a toxic culture is complex, challenging – and human. We need to start by recognizing that culture is about our human condition, experiences, and behaviors. In the past, we might have thought of culture as events, engagement, the energy in the room when we are together, and the added perks and benefits, and we could talk about what a great culture we had. But the thing is, what’s underlying a great culture is the human relationships that add up to culture. 

If we pause and dive deeper into that thought, we get to the conversations between us, which then means: 

How do we engage with care and show that we listen to understand and include the human in front of us? 

How do we show that people matter and we value their thoughts and contribution? 

When we care about people, we engage differently; we ask questions with curiosity, encourage courage and build confidence. We ask them what they need to do their best work, and we share with them why it matters and the impact it has. 

This is how we cultivate a culture where people feel they matter and belong, that their thoughts and contributions are valued, and that they have agency and autonomy in their work. Should be simple, right? 

Cultivating such a culture and being that kind of leader makes sense because a healthy culture is good for the bottom line. But, unfortunately, toxic cultures outweigh healthy ones; According to a study by AON, 1 in 3 people say that they don’t feel their organization cares about them. 

We know that people don’t leave companies; they leave managers. We know that people are most likely to stay when they like the people who make up their team. It’s clear something needs to change; what, who, and how is the question.

The root cause of toxic behavior is stress which leads to anger, impatience, and ego-driven behaviors. We see this in high-pressure companies, and work intensity is often used as an excuse for a toxic environment. Comments like: “Yes, but we are under so much pressure, we don’t have time for that soft-skill stuff.” Or “people just have to toughen up and be more thick-skinned and resilient. Do not take things so personally.” You might have heard these yourself in your work life. 


I meet many leaders who care about their people and want to support them in doing their best work, but it takes everyone to change a fear-driven result-orientated toxic culture into a care-driven impact and purpose-focused one.

People want to contribute and matter, be respected for who they are, and feel they have agency and autonomy in the workday. We, humans, want to do good work, work that matters for companies that care about why they are in business, which comes down to the impact they have in the lives of their customers. 

A combination of these factors often causes a toxic culture. It can be challenging to address without an intentional and mindful effort from leaders, employees, and the organization. However, change starts with what is a boundary over what is accepted and encouraged by leadership.

  • Unrealistic expectations and pressure: Unrealistic expectations and constant pressure to perform can lead to stress, burnout, and unethical behavior. If employees feel that they are being forced to choose between their well-being and their job, it can lead to resentment and disconnection.
  • Lack of trust: When employees feel that their colleagues and leaders cannot be trusted, it can create a culture of suspicion and fear. This can lead to a lack of engagement, increased conflict, lack of collaboration, and a reluctance to take risks or innovate.
  • Lack of respect and inclusion: When our ideas and perspectives are shut down, or others take credit, when we lose trust in our leaders, and when we feel our colleagues cannot be trusted, it can create a culture of suspicion and fear. This can lead to increased conflict, lack of collaboration, and a reluctance to take risks or innovate.

Of course discriminatory or harassing behavior create a toxic environment where some employees feel unsafe, unsupported, or undervalued. This can also create a culture where the targeted individuals are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation, therefore, affecting work performance and teamwork. 


It takes better communication that’s care-driven and focused on supporting people in doing their best work by being at their best.

  • Leaders must establish clear values, goals, and real expectations and communicate why it matters while also asking people what they need to achieve these goals, what kind of support works best for them, and how they do their best work. This helps people reclaim agency over their work day and know how they are measured.
  • Leaders must model appropriate behavior that cultivates trust by holding others accountable for their actions. If negative behaviors are tolerated or even encouraged, it leads to disengagement among those who show up and perform at their best every day.
  • When people feel their work matters and are seen for their input and included in how problems are solved, they also feel safe to express themselves and ask for what they need to contribute full-heartedly.

Many people say that self-care means leaving a toxic culture, and it might be. But not everyone has that option. 

Using the tools from The Self-Care Mindset®, these are some of the ways you can better support yourself. That said, you cannot change the culture on your own; you can only take better care of yourself. Short of leaving, how do you survive these conditions without burning out? 


We have three versions of the Power-Pause: the physical, the emotional, and the mental.

1. The Physical Power-Pause means that you need to take a moment to check in with your body. Do you need to stretch, twist, stand up, drink some water, or take five to step away from the computer or the problem? Take a couple of breaths while focusing on the exhale to get you the emotional and mental space to reset, refocus and reclaim agency. 

When you are being pushed to “keep going, work harder, run faster” to achieve results, you will notice a fear-driven feeling in your body. Under stress and pressure, cortisol rises, and we become more fear-driven and reactive. Emotional reactions will wear on you. It will make you feel less confident and courageous because your internal signaling system tells you you are unsafe. That means you will try to make safe decisions and second-guess what will keep you out of trouble. As a result, you will feel stuck, stressed, and skittish, which is not a good feeling. Pausing to reset your attention over and over again, on the goal you are working to achieve, is essential to staying clear of the toxic pothole of what’s not working. 

2. The Emotional Power-Pause gives you a gap, a moment, a space between the trigger (a person or situation that feels disrespectful of you) and gives you a chance to consider your response. 

A pause can first allow your nervous system to calm down, and instead of feeling triggered to react, you can observe your mind, recognize what it’s doing, aka the thoughts that are coming, and then choose to do something different with those thoughts. Intention fuels attention, so at that moment, you can focus on solving the problem and what you need to do rather than getting stuck thinking about the person triggering your stress response and the problem causing it. Then you can check in to notice how it makes you feel and allow that feeling to be ok. If you tell yourself your emotions are a problem, you create a toxic relationship with yourself. 

3. The Mental Power-Pause is the last one, where you can ask more questions of your leader to show that you are focused on solving the problem rather than being stuck in it. For example, ask questions like: 

What would good look like? What will make this work in your perspective? What do you suggest as a good next step? Questions that show you are listening and focused on the growth mindset and looking to move forward. 

Power-Pausing can help you come back home to your center, to your power and your inner fuel: what matters to you and what you care about. Reclaiming agency over your choices is essential. The pause can help you see what needs to be done, first and then next, and then next. Slowing down your response can help you speed up the actions. Once you have chosen to do something, you will work faster because FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) slows us down and thrives in a toxic culture. When you face the FUD and use that as information, you can more easily cut through the overwhelm. Of course, I suggest reading further into this in my book, The Self-Care Mindset.


We have all been in situations where the fear of not achieving your goals rises alongside the pressure to drive results. Where the conversations are focused on what we are not doing right, what’s going wrong, and what’s lacking and missing. Like knowing you’re in trouble when the email or phone call comes in because you know that you probably missed something or did something wrong. Or presenting something, and you know already, before you are done, that it will be picked apart with questions being asked about every detail that you might not have an answer to, yet. 
I know so many people who are constantly anxious because they are trying to think of anything that could go wrong and everything they might have missed or not thought of. When we are trying to guess what will make our manager happy, we are already in trouble, and it’s wearing us out.

A culture where people belong and work better is built on the practice of Pause-Listen-Ask as the way we engage. It’s the key to cultivating the kind of awareness and engagement that’s the foundation for agency and autonomy, which in return, is how people work better together. When the argument is that we don’t have time for that because we are under so much pressure, I would say we don’t have time not to. 

A Culture of Care® fosters an environment of curiosity, acknowledgment, respect, and empathy. 

Next time we will dig further into the questions from the C.A.R.E. framework that help cultivate that.