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13 Min Read

The Social Psychology Of Toxic Work Culture: An Interview With Tony Vigorito

David Mizne
David Mizne

Part One of my interview with Tony Vigorito focused on the social dynamics of organizational culture. One theme that emerged (and one that might ideally prevent a toxic work culture from forming) is the concept of community in the workplace.

Vigorito discussed the increasingly common strategy to build a corporate culture patterned after community, as in a family, and he highlighted the inherent risk of employees perceiving that communal culture as insincere:

“People are not stupid. Even if they lack the ability to articulate their frustrations with deficiencies in social dynamics, that doesn’t mean they aren’t sensing those deficiencies. If a company’s attempt to create community is less than genuine, it will create alienation and will fail to achieve the sought-after goals.”

What does work culture have to do with cults, power struggles, and the world-famous Burning Man festival? Read Part One of the interview to find out.

In addition to authoring three novels (see, including his most recent underground hit, Love and Other PranksTony Vigorito, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and cultural design consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. What follows is the remainder of our fascinating conversation on the inner workings of organizational culture.

DM: We’ve discussed company culture at length but I’m curious how a business maintains its cultural identity under duress. Let’s look at the example of an acquihire or another merger. The larger organization may want to enroll all of the people they acquire into an existing culture. Is that even possible? Or can leadership introduce desirable cultural elements once an undesirable culture has formed? How are people enrolled in a cultural ideal?

TV: Thinking that a parent company in an acquisition has the capacity to dictate or significantly alter the culture of the purchased company is a risky proposition, if that company continues to be populated by the same people in the same roles.

For example, Amazon bought Whole Foods recently. I was just talking with the butcher there and he said that not a whole lot has changed. Their changes were limited almost exclusively to the pricing structures. They created a template, which then each store manager was tasked to fill with locally-desirable products.

There was not an attempt to turn Whole Foods into Amazon. Although, I considered it a misstep last month—at least on the consumer side—when all of their employees were wearing blue Amazon Prime aprons. I noticed a fair amount of grumbling on social media after that. That was an example of a cultural incursion that turned off some customers.

In any event, aggressively seeking to redefine the social roles of a purchased organization is ill-advised. Such a thing has to be done mindfully and gradually, while paying attention to the fact that people are cultural animals. If you’re creating a culture that individuals resent, that they don’t feel supports a tolerable identity, that’s not in the interests of your bottom line. You’ll lose efficiency, loyalty, morale, and productivity to the extent that the culture a person is inhabiting is less than fulfilling for them.

DM: This takes me to my next question, which is one of authority. Toxic culture has been discussed at length even before the #metoo movement. What is going on psychologically when a person who is not a leader directs the culture, in either direction. For example, remember the video where the lone guy at a festival danced with abandon and everyone joined him, can you break that down?

TV: Okay, so people go to a music festival because they want to dance with abandon in the late afternoon sunshine. A person doing that with a degree of charisma and lack of self-consciousness occupies a temporary position of high social status, and status is the power to define a situation. In the social setting of a music festival, it is desirable to dance with abandon. When you see someone achieving that, they get to define the situation. They are achieving the highest goal for that context. They are the life of the party.

Now let’s shift the scenario and say that the person that wanted to dance lacked the charm and charisma. He wasn’t dancing with abandon, he was self-conscious, bumping into people, invading people’s space, and just generally trying too hard. He would have very low social status, people would be clearing their throats and looking away, and he would therefore lack any capacity to define the situation.

Toxic work culture is not an accident, it can always be traced to the point of view that’s being expressed by an individual or group of individuals who possess high social status in your organization.

As I’ve said before, social dynamics are the same no matter your level of analysis, so transferring this example a business setting, we can begin to see how toxic culture emerges. If there’s a new male employee, and after only a few weeks he is sexually aggressive with one of the female employees at a company gathering, his toxic behavior is not likely to be infectious (and he’s not likely to last in the organization). That is primarily because he lacks social status.

On the other hand, if the toxic behavior is coming from a person of high social status such as, to use a recent example, Harvey Weinstein, then because that person controls access to resources, their status is what enables a toxic work culture.

As we are always residing in one another’s points of view, toxic culture is never an accident. It can always be traced to the point of view that’s being expressed by an individual or group of individuals who possess high social status in the organization. What we call culture is actually a point of view that has attained dominance. If that point of view is toxic, so will be the culture.

DM: Even outside of the sexual harassment context, toxic work culture can happen when an organization simply doesn’t live up to their mission, vision, or values. Then a charismatic employee (the class clown) is able to enroll people in mocking the culture, and if successful, they attain the requisite status to redefine the culture.

TV: The class clown is the prankster. What we mean by prankster in a cultural sense is the person who takes nothing seriously, not even their own identity. In world mythologies we often resist the prankster archetype—or trickster as it’s traditionally called—because those who have created what we now experience as objective culture have a vested interest in their point of view being experienced as an objectivity. This can be reinforced with nothing more than a shrug that says, this is just the way things are.

I’ve had personal experience with a toxic personality in my orbit at a couple different times in my life, either someone struggling with significant narcissism or sexual predation. In both cases they were able to get away with their behavior for a period because of their high social status. Status is conferred by your ability to command and control access to resources.

The most basic example of this in the context of work is providing value to a company in exchange for money, which is what provides you with access to all the resources required to sustain yourself and your family. You very naturally are going to identify with the source of your resources.

In identity theory, we have two basic propositions: 1) identity is social location, and 2) social location is based on access to resources. Therefore, identity is based on access to resources. Who we think we are is less an expression of who we are and more an expression of where we are, i.e., how we locate ourselves social-geographically. A person who controls access to resources then has the ability to control an individual’s identity.

To return to an earlier example, a cult is an extreme culture, and by examining the extreme version we can more easily discern the dynamics that are present is less oppressive systems. So, in the cult I devised in my most recent novel, Love and Other Pranks, the corrupt guru ruthlessly controls members’ access to resources as a means of controlling their very identities. We see this all the time in real-world cults. Members are indoctrinated into an oppressive culture by gradually surrendering control of all of their material and non-material resources to the cult.

DM: I think that an important component in all of this is leadership. It seems rare to find a lack of ego in leadership, or the ability and desire to surrender control. Our CEO, David Hassell, is very much a visionary leader and he realized at some point that giving up control to others (cofounders and leaders, really a bit to every employee) was the path to achieving success more quickly and sustainably.

We’ve largely decentralized control, access to resources, access to information. Ok, to some degree that still exists, we’re not a holocracy. But we’re trying to figure out how to codify our culture into a more communal culture. That’s even partly what our product is intended to do, help forge authentic relationships between managers and employees, and build communities in companies by showing appreciation and providing feedback and support.

Help forge authentic relationships between managers and employees, and build a community inside your company.  Try the 15Five Weekly Check-in.

Managers in higher level orgs move into coaching and mentorship roles instead of cracking a whip. These types of cultures tend to create more of a community and I’m trying to figure out how we can codify and replicate it.

TV: The first step is paying very close attention to the personalities that are inhabiting leadership roles. You don’t have to look any further than the executive branch of government to see the deleterious consequences of having a leader who does not possess the requisite moral character to occupy a leadership role, not to mention the ramifications this can have on the culture they command.

But simple social psychological truths can become obscured as the scale of organization increases, so let’s simplify the example to a family organization. If the father is an abusive alcoholic, that entire family is going to suffer. He is going to create problems and traumas that will persist beyond his own lifetime. He is not qualified to be in that position of leadership.

To bring it back to a business organization, if you have someone who is overly ambitious, power-hungry, narcissistic, etc., and they succeed in getting into a leadership role, no product you can conceive of is going to interfere with the toxic influence of that personality holding status. That would make a great product actually, a psychological instrument to screen sociopathic or otherwise toxic personalities from leadership roles, notwithstanding the fact that there are obsolete industries that rely upon mendacity to enforce their continued relevance.

DM: We interviewed CEOs and leaders at several companies, asked them about their major pain-points, and were able to distill six distinct themes. One of which was how to grow without losing their culture. When I hear that, I think about the Dunbar Limit, how intimacy cannot be sustained in groups comprised of above 120-150 people. What happens at certain points where culture just falls apart or intimacy can’t be sustained?

TV: What happens is that increasing levels of anonymity emerge which leads to lack of accountability and creates alienation, which undermines employee loyalty and potentially leads to inventory shrinkage.

DM: Ha! Businesses love to sugar coat. They mean stealing?

TV: Pilfering and embezzlement are serious issues for organizations. If you feel like your employer is providing for all of your needs—including financial, social psychological, or even spiritual needs—you’re not going to steal from people that you identify with. It would be like stealing money out of your spouse’s wallet. Why would you do that? You’re on the same team.

In terms of avoiding that, the Dunbar Limit has to be respected. I would return to the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and his conception of a network of nodes that could be comprised of, say, a hundred people and there’s considerable in-group identification and loyalty as a result. Every node is comprised of a hundred individuals but every node interfaces frequently with its neighboring nodes, thereby continually injecting novelty and defeating groupthink. In this way you have a sustainable and vibrant corporate culture that could conceivably comprise tens of thousands of people.

Don’t miss Part One of the interview: Burning Man’s Key Lessons On The Social Dynamics Of Community Based Work Culture.

David Mizne is Marketing Communications Manager at 15Five, continuous performance management software that includes weekly check-ins, objectives (OKR) tracking, peer recognition, 1-on-1s, and reviews. David’s articles have also appeared on The Next Web & TalentCulture. Follow him @davidmizne.