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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

The birth and death of toxic work cultures [Wise Wednesdays]

November 1st, 1954 – Northern Algeria: Midnight: A gunshot is heard, followed by a series of attacks on military barracks. The Algerian war of independence has begun. Shortly after, a growing number of French civilians are conscripted into the army to “maintain order” in the French territory of Algeria. Eventually, they total over 400,000 men barely over 20. A recent documentary portrayed how these teachers, priests, poets, carpenters, with no military training whatsoever, were put in the most horrific moral dilemmas - required to pacify civilians with education and healthcare on the one hand while brutalising them for any disobedience on the other. The young soldiers sense the unjust war but can’t desert. With the escalation of violence over the 7 years that followed, they’re asked to turn a blind eye to torture, rape and murder in order to survive. While the horrors of war are difficult to acknowledge, they mustn’t be forgotten. They can teach us about the origins and eradication of toxic work culture. August 14th, 1971 – Palo Alto, California: 9am: A police car screeches through the city arresting students. It’s a psychological experiment in which 21 young men recreate prison conditions. The Stanford University study is cut short due to the abuses that start taking place: the mock prison guards are abusing their power over the mock prisoners who are collapsing helplessly. The researchers conclude that, given the conditions, humans fulfil the social roles that are expected of them even if they’re immoral. A BBC experiment replicating the study showed that the abuses could be overturned if individuals broke with expectations of their social role. Prisoners could defy power and rally together while unethical leaders could find themselves isolated and contained. Toxic work cultures are characterised by 4 things:

  1. Effort-reward imbalance (you’re required to put your energy into something you don’t believe in)

  2. Low job control/autonomy

  3. Authoritarian hierarchies with low trust/psychological safety

  4. Moral injury (you have to compromise on your values e.g. by putting work before family/health; profit/outcomes before people and so on)

Most of all, toxic work cultures thrive on survival fears and the myths and roles that reinforce them: the bullying boss (“I must get things done”); the stressed employee (“it’s the only way to pay the bills”); the HR officer who tries to help but feels overwhelmed (“there’s too much to do and I can’t change things”); the manager who turns a blind eye but whose health is deteriorating (“I don’t care anymore”). Breaking with expectations of a social role, especially if it’s continuously reinforced by your environment is hard. Those who do break them are called heroes, leaders, mavericks. It’s not about doing something big, but doing something right. You know what you need to do but you’re afraid. That’s OK. That’s the call to leadership. I never put pressure on clients to do something “big”. They become leaders through the courage to align with their deepest values and it’s different for different people. For example:

  • Dr J left a toxic environment in a prestigious intergovernmental agency to set up her own consultancy, and now has more time for her family and creative writing.

  • Dr E turned resigned from a promotion in a well-known global think tank to work part-time as an associate and live a calmer life in the country and look after her health.

  • Dr T turned down a big project in corporate training to focus on her work on imposter phenomenon travelling and consulting at national and international level.

  • Mr G let go of helping businesses chase profits to work with high net worth individuals and national institutions on making a social impact in education and climate change.

  • Dr L is handing over some of her general practice work to focus on her book, speaking and coaching.

Toxic work cultures live and die by the social roles and myths that we buy into and trap us. By breaking with outdated myths about success, careers and work ethic, they give birth to new career paths, more freedom and deep joy in the world. I think true leadership is an action not a title. What will you do differently today? Have a good week, Amina

p.s. It’s next week! Join the High Achiever Paradox webinar on the 14th of November, 6pm UK. Find out more here. If you’re ready to make more conscious career choices and unsure where to start here are 3 options:

  1. Be in a room with likeminded professionals doing transformational work to let go of limiting beliefs and live from their deeper potential. The next Leaders Circle is on January 16th. Sign up here to receive the registration link in advance.

  2. Invest in one-to-one transformational coaching. We work together for 3 to 12 months to create a new career and life trajectory. Email me for a conversation at with “Transformation” in the email title and tell me about your biggest challenge.

  3. Not in London or the UK? Join the (free) online Circle on November 14th, 6pm UK. Register here for further information.

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