How Social Threats Create Toxic Cultures, and What You Can Do About Them


It’s tempting to blame toxic work cultures on an unknowable set of factors, but often the answer is much simpler.

In an article for Fast Company, author Meghan E. Butler, partner at Frame+Function, noted that toxic workplace cultures are consistently the product of poor leadership.

Specifically, toxic behavior often stems from leaders missing (or ignoring) key warning signs in how teams function. Perhaps they see aggressive work styles as signs of passion, or label cases of bullying as harmless fun. Meanwhile, employees get hurt and the culture turns toxic.

Understanding SCARF

As Butler points out, there are five key social domains that demand leaders’ attention: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. We call it the SCARF Model. It relies on the widespread neuroscience finding that social threats register in the brain in a similar way as physical threats: Cognitive function suffers and people’s quality of work declines.

Toxic behavior can affect any SCARF domain, or several in combination. For instance, it’s threatening to a person’s status when their co-worker openly calls out a recent mistake in a team meeting. And it damages people’s sense of fairness and relatedness (or sense of belonging) when a manager plays favorites by assigning projects only to certain people.

Leaders who stay aware of these domains can actively take steps to fix them, in turn creating more psychological safety at work. That means bestowing employees not with social threats, but rewards.

Here are examples for each SCARF domain:

Status — Leaders can celebrate employees’ contributions to the wider team, and they can celebrate team wins to the larger department or organization.

Certainty — Before starting a meeting, leaders can lay out the agenda and clarify the goals he or she wishes to achieve by the end.

Autonomy — Leaders can raise employees’ sense of control and ownership over their work by delegating projects across the team, rather than hoarding information and keeping people out of the loop.

Relatedness — Inclusive leaders help their employees recognize shared goals, such as hitting sales targets or wrapping a big project. (Contrary to popular belief, highlighting differences may only further divide people.)

Fairness — Leaders can create a sense of equality by mitigating biases, such as seeking diverse opinions around the office to reduce what psychologists call “experience bias.”

The takeaway

Ultimately, toxic cultures form when leaders practice the same unhelpful behaviors over and over again. These actions are seldom intentionally destructive, but unless leaders actively try to develop the correct habits — and create psychological safety for everyone — social threats are bound to arise.

As Butler notes, “All of these signs can generally be whittled down to one key factor: Fear. And fear corrodes mental health and productivity.”

Author: Chris Weller

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