Tolstoy's classic novel Anna Karenina famously begins, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Many people think you could say something similar for unhappy companies.
It's true every toxic workplace has its own unique fingerprint of unpleasant personalities, dubious ethics, and inane regulations. No two narcissistic bosses or rules-obsessed HR departments are exactly the same in their awfulness. But according to some of the smartest commentators in business, underneath this surface-level diversity lurks a surprising amount of sameness.
Every toxic company culture isn't toxic in its own way. Every type of terrible company culture can be traced to just a handful of fundamental errors, they argue.
A "toxic" culture isn't just one you don't like
Some of the confusion around what exactly makes for a toxic culture, according to VC and blogger Hunter Walk, is that a lot of us use the term "toxic" in a loose way to mean simply a culture that doesn't appeal to us personally.
"Coinbase, which has been quite aggressive in defining what's expected of you, isn't my cup of tea, but I can still appreciate the clarity they are providing for potential employees. Similarly, the 'holacracy' style that has been explored by some startups sounds like a nightmare. But that mere personal attraction or repulsion doesn't make them good or bad," he wrote on his blog recently.
I'd personally rather chop off a few toes than work in the kind of place that demands people wear suits and sit in cubicles for 12 hours a day, but that doesn't make the entirety of investment banking toxic. It just means I'm not cut out for Goldman Sachs (no news there).
So if a toxic culture isn't something idiosyncratic and individual that you can determine by gut feelings, how do you define when a company has a truly noxious or ineffective culture?
Adam Grant's four deadly sins of toxic workplace culture
On his WorkLife podcast recently, Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant offered a simple framework to answer this question. He explained that a toxic company culture is always about a lack of balance. Companies become toxic when they go way too far toward one side on a couple of scales of competing values: relationships versus results and rules versus risk.
Overemphasize one of these four 4Rs, he claims, and you'll commit one of the four deadly sins of workplace culture:
Relationships. If not stepping on toes or upsetting people is all that matters at a business, it's no surprise that actually getting things done falls way down the list of priorities. The result is mediocrity and a culture without accountability. "Even if you do a terrible job, you can still get ahead as long as people like you," says Grant of this first fundamental type of toxicity.
Results. This is the other end of the relationships-versus-results tradeoff. Over on this side are companies that value relationships so little that they'll throw human decency under the bus in the name of performance. Grant (and research) suggests this variety of toxicity is the deadliest of all company culture sins and can result in disrespect, abuse, unethical decisions, and cutthroat behavior.
Rules. Every business must balance the stability of rules against the rewards of risks. If you stray too far toward rules, you end up with creativity- and initiative-killing bureaucracy. These are the companies that ask you to submit a form in triplicate just to use the bathroom, and which view even minor changes to the status quo with suspicion and hostility.
Risk. On the other end of the spectrum from rules and bureaucracy is the utter chaos of rules-free anarchy. When everyone can do whatever they want without coordination or alignment, people end up working at cross-purposes, valuable lessons are never learned, and a whole lot of effort gets wasted.
"Code can be rewritten. Products can be built, modified, sunset. Investors can be bought out. But culture is like super-cement that's oozed into every nook and cranny, often beyond the reach of a jackhammer. This importance is why the categorizing, assessing, and discussion of culture has to be very specific," Walk writes in his blog post.
Grant's framework provides a handy method to do just that sort of assessment. Whether you're a job seeker trying to understand whether the culture of the company you might join is toxic or a leader keen to make sure that job seekers definitely don't see your culture as toxic, it helps to have a mental map of the types of toxicity you should look out for. Grant's 4Rs provide just that.