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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

What does the ideal work culture look like? Biology, trust and choice [Wise Wednesdays]

It’s 4 years since I wrote a Wise Wednesdays about how “people don’t leave jobs but leave toxic work cultures”. It was widely shared and got engagement from over a million people on LinkedIn, contributing to The Success Trap book.

But what is a non-toxic work culture?

Thousands of frameworks exist and it’s my belief that a toxic work culture is something that is experienced as a relational field that is non-violent and honours life. Exactly what that looks like, depends on the time, place and context. It has to be figured out – in a non-violent way.

With millions still quitting their jobs each month and the ongoing ecosocial crisis, I believe it’s time to shift from a culture of 'performance' to a culture of connection or we will fail to make meaningful change.

Here are 3 elements that appear to be crucial to an ideal, non-toxic work culture based on research and working with a wide range of clients:

1) Rooted in the biology of love

Love is not a feeling but the realisation of the interdependence of all life (thank you, Buddha). Or as biologist and philosopher Umberto Maturana put it: “it’s a state of being that emerges from the biological processes that give rise to life itself”. Overgiving and overfunctioning are not love. Our ability to calibrate our physiology and release your thinking from judgement cultivates a biology of love. When this biology translates into context-specific actions and words we and others experience ‘love’.

For example, I showed my client M how to calibrate her anger physiology without suppressing it or acting it out but my making specific requests (not demands). This led to her partner experiencing more love in their connection and that led to a repair of trust.

[By the way, this biology of love has been linked to what is identified as a distinct female biology with the capacity for “maternal instincts”. Another reason to celebrate what women/the feminine can bring to leadership – Happy Women’s Day.]

2) Skilled in the sociology of trust

If we are rooted in the biology of love, repeated interactions naturally foster trust which facilitates collaboration. Suddenly, we are more collectively resourced to navigate differences in perspective and find solutions that meet true needs. Tending to these social dynamics opens up a whole new field of possibilities beyond hierarchical organisations focused on extraction and profit. Through these trust-building interactions, the biology of love becomes embedded in our relationships. This starts to heal the social fabric and creates a foundation for new systemic structures.


The first of only two women to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, Elinor Ostrom, demonstrated that the commons (shared resources that are collectively self-governed) were not an inevitable tragedy of exploitation waiting to happen because humans automatically abuse each other without laws to control them. With trust as the foundation, resources could be successfully self-governed by groups through principles that enable dialogue and conflict resolution. Experimentation in this field is growing and critical to finding new ways forward in these times of crisis.

3) Awake to the political economy of choice

Who gets to choose and whose choices receive attention and resources? If we are to translate our biology of love and our understanding of the social dynamics of trust into action at scale and therefore transform systemic structures, we cannot get away from studying choice: whose choices matter and why? And, yes, you’re right, this is a study of Power.

We need to wake up to the structures that create the current relational field by asking why attention and resources flow in one direction and not in another. Only this way can we integrate the liberating narratives that need to be amplified and release the toxic, oppressive ones that no longer have a place in our global future.

In summary, an ideal culture is rooted, skilled and awake. We are present, powerful and willing to take risks towards new possibilities.

Is this all utopian?

Legend in the making: In a coaching session last week, a client was talking about the culture she created in her large NHS team and how she was creating the same in her innovative mental health start-up. It struck me how she was intuitively bringing the above 3 elements. Does it work? Well, the NHS won’t let her go and her start up is growing exponentially. But more importantly, the relationships she’s enabling are non-violent, open and supportive whether it’s among the team or with the patients. It may not be an easily measurable indicator. But you know it when you experience it (as love, trust and fairness). It’s possibly the only ‘indicator’ that matters in the end, especially in a world desperate for a little sanity.

The radical shift away from a culture of Survival of the Fittest to what has been called the Survival of the Connected is no small thing. And, yet, the possibilities are here…

Have a great week,


p.s. Join us for another online Deep Dive Conversation on Power with the RSA Coaching Network. Details and registration here (choose March 14th):

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