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Toxic to the boardroom

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

This blog should be seen as a supplement to an earlier piece about bad bosses... but in the light of last weeks BrewDog revelations, I felt compelled to write a bit more.

If you are unaware of what I am talking about, a couple of weeks ago, employees and ex employees wrote an open signed letter to James Watt, BrewDog CEO. In this letter they voiced exactly why the culture in BrewDog is toxic. Plenty of ex-employees signed the letter claiming they were bullied and treated like objects. Going into great detail explaining stories of abuse, arrogance and misconduct from the leaders. I have made no secret of the fact that BrewDog are my secret business crush at the moment, so to read this is both shocking and disturbing.

To be a part of the consortium to send the letter though - that is ballsy.


Click each page to open and read.

As shocking as this letter is, it appears that BrewDog are not alone.


A toxic work environment is one wherein dysfunction and drama reign supreme. This can be the result of a narcissistic boss, the actions of vindictive co-workers, the absence of order and trust etc. Thousands of people in thousands of businesses face abusive management, supervisors and colleagues that are bullies at work. These employees are targets of ridicule, threats, or demeaning comments by their manager on a daily basis, which results in decreased satisfaction, productivity, and commitment to the job as well as the organisation at large. As I alluded to - this is not unique to Brewdog - it has been widely reported that other large businesses, specifically technology giants and home shopping behemoths are not immune from this issue.

We must be really careful when we talk about dysfunctional and toxic environments. There is a huge difference between a) systematically down-playing somebody that works for you, and forcing them into subservience or depression, and b) forcefully challenging somebody about their expected performance, forcing them to choose their reaction. All too often I have seen grievances raised for the former, only to discover it is the latter. When humans are in this position though, it is easy to see how they may conflate the two.

While direct interactions with “bad bosses” can be traumatic for employees, the problem often goes further than a single individual. For sure, some exploration has shown that oppressive conduct, particularly when shown by leaders, can spread throughout the organisation, creating entire climates of abuse. Because employees look to and learn from managers, they come to understand that this type of interpersonal mistreatment is acceptable behavior in the company. In essence, employees start to think that “this is how it’s done around here,” and this belief manifests itself in a toxic environment that tolerates abusive acts. More so, other studies have gone as far as to have shown, that employees who experience maltreatment from a boss are additionally more slanted to "pass on" this sort of treatment in a gradually expanding sphere of influence.

As such, the outcomes of destructive workplaces are devastating, harming work teams and individuals alike. An oppressive environment negatively impacts a work group’s collective potency, which indicates that the team has lost its confidence and/or ability to adequately produce a desired or intended result. Furthermore, abusive work environments destroy important bonds between team members, which further results in reduced performance and lessens citizenship behaviors. In this kind of environment, employees are less likely to help and support each other. For certain, Toxic workplaces also impair the lives of individuals beyond the work realm. Employees report feeling emotionally drained, experience lower well-being, and even increased conflict at home as they try to adapt to the stress of work alone.

What to do... Uncover their reality

Given the harmful consequences of abusive bosses, the question is what can be done to change this behavior. Now, if it were me inheriting the reigns of this shitstorm, I would seek to provide answers by asking both the supervisors and employees about their willingness (or not) to address abuse in the workplace. Firstly, speaking with valued colleagues. We need to understand what makes abusive bosses change their behavior. To do so, I would ask people in a supervisory position, to reflect upon a time in which they directed demeaning comments and rude behavior towards subordinates. Then asking them to recount this experience with as much detail as possible. I would hope that after recalling and describing the abusive incidents, supervisors would understand how they felt in the time after exerting abuse, and then be empathetic to the feelings of the recipient... The ultimate indicator of course, is whether they actually stopped the abusive behavior.

indifferent to social repercussions and social welfare makes them less likely to stop abusing subordinates

What I do know is, that abusive bosses significantly improve their bad behavior when they care about their level of social worth (what others think of them) and the general well-being of employees. Yet, in contrast however, psychopathic bosses (up to 10% of managers across the hospitality industry) who are cold, callous, cynical, and lack remorse - those twats of the boardroom appear indifferent to social repercussions and social welfare, which makes them less likely to stop abusing subordinates.

Beyond understanding when supervisors change abusive conduct on their own, I am curious about the conditions under which witnesses to others mistreatment would help a victimised colleague. Exactly when would employees stand up for an abused coworker ?

Here is the rub. When employees feel that their organisation values and emphasises fairness (for example, amongst a raft of other needs - the team perceive promotion, salaries, or bonus structures to be fair), then onlookers are much more likely to help a victimised colleague. In fact, these norms seem to empower bystanders to act, because they start to believe in their ability to make a positive difference in the lives of others. This concept is known as ethical efficacy, and has been defined as one's belief in their ability to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources, and courses of action necessary to enact ethical behavior. It is this newly gained confidence that drives them to speak up, and protect their colleagues from the latest arsehole spinning in the executive chair and playing minecraft.

Then there's the million dollar question. What about me? What do I do if I feel bullied or harrassed or that I am working in a toxic environment? Should I stay, believing that everyday may get a little worse? Should I stand and fight knowing full well leadership may close ranks a freeze me out - or should I take my chances, and cut and run...?

Fight or Flight ?

If your belief is that this is endemic throughout your organisation, and that the leaders you put faith in are not to be trusted - Plan your exit...

Option 1: Plan Your Exit | Well, if it seems like there’s nothing you can do to stop the angry after-hours emails from your boss or relieve the anxiety of being thrown under the bus by your co-workers. Your confidence is shot, you dread going to work, and you start feeling lousy, both physically and mentally. If your belief is that this is endemic throughout your organisation, and that the leaders you put faith in are not to be trusted - Then, luckily there is something you can do, but you need to take the bull by the horns and get out - Now.


Option 2: Confrontation | However, it is not always as easy as telling somebody to shove their job up their arse, and you may choose to stay and tough it out. The fighter in you insisting that no way is this half-witted tool getting the better of me... the prequel to any action here is whether or not you believe that the situation is temporary, because it is fixable. If it is about individual behaviour, then it can be a relatively simple 'tough out'. To achieve this - you could put faith in your business and help leadership develop a culture that works. An open and honest culture based around clear communication, and purpose. An all inclusive, diverse work environment that will absolutely not accept any kind of abuse. However, if the root causes of the toxicity is based in corporate ethics, then I am afraid you are back with option 1.


Option 3: Change the Team | Change the Mindset

Firstly, 3dcompanies should increase awareness and educate managers about all costs associated with abusive conduct. By emphasising the detrimental consequences of abusive behavior right at the outset of one’s career during company orientation, as well as through continuous training programs, managers would come to understand that negative actions not only harm others, but also themselves. Consequently, many bosses might refrain from abusive actions out of pure self-interest.

Second, companies can incorporate or strengthen anonymous feedback channels where employees can voice their concerns and report abusive experiences without fear of retribution. Peer managers, superiors, or HR could deliver the relevant feedback to managers, making it clear that the organization does not tolerate this kind of behavior. Knowing that others disapprove — or even worse, that they don’t value or appreciate the supervisor— may lead this perpetrator to self-correct abusive behavior.

Third, organisations need to uphold and enforce fair and ethical norms in all aspects of company life, because employees reflect upon these values before deciding whether to stand up to abuse or not. If they sense that fair and respectful treatment is commonly valued and supported in the company, employees might be more confident to confront an abuser and protect someone who has been mistreated.

In all, by raising awareness about the costs for perpetrators and by constantly communicating fair values and norms that empower employees to speak up, we might be able to say to the abusive bosses, the schemers and the narcissists - your 15 minutes is up, get off the stage, and take your toxic workplace with you.

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