Anker & Marsh

Author Bio ▼

Dr Tim Marsh PhD, MSc, CFIOSH, CPsychol, SFIIRSM is MD of Anker and Marsh. Visiting Professor at Plymouth University he is considered a world authority on the subject of behavioural safety, safety leadership and organisational culture.As well as many of the world's most recognisable industrial names Tim has worked with diverse organisations such as the European Space Agency, the BBC, Sky TV, the RNLI and the National Theatre in his 25 year plus consultancy career.He has key noted and chaired dozens of conferences around the world including the closing key note at the Campbell Institutes inaugural International Thoughts Leaders event in 2014. He has written several best-selling books including Affective Safety Management, Talking Safety, Total Safety Culture, the Definitive Guide to Behavioural Safety and Organised Wellbeing. Previously he led Manchester Universities ground-breaking research team into behavioural safety methodologies in the 1990s.
June 30, 2021

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Trust & toxicity

In the latest part of his SHP blog series, Tim Marsh delves into the complexities of trust and toxic cultures.

Trust bridgeThe first thing to say about trust is that it’s one of the key building blocks of all civilisation. As in: “whilst I’m away hunting Dinosaurs if you promise not eat all the stores… I promise to fetch back some of what I kill”. We’re a (highly successful) species that tends to trust by default as overall it’s mutually beneficial and adaptive. Countries and regions with higher levels of trust tend to prosper far better than ones with lower trust (the prosperous North and less prosperous South of Italy being held as the classic example from a famous study).

I say overall as, of course, cults and con artists aim to take full advantage of this when they can… so some sage advice from the UK’s senior spy: “to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies and vicious circles trust everyone… just verify everything!” Linking directly to the world of wellbeing and mental health the stress guru, Prof Sir Cary Cooper, regularly says trust is the number one metric organisations should consider.

To avoid self-fulfilling prophecies and vicious circles trust everyone… just verify everything!

We’ve always broadly agreed but we think that the levels and quality of learning and empowerment are even more important as they are, for us, the two keys to building trust. Indeed, along with learning and empowerment trust is a key element of our route map cultural assessment tool and recently we’ve had clients ask for it as a stand-alone. However, this short article is about the flip side of a culture full of trust. This article is about toxic cultures.

In the simplest analysis, you build trust by not being toxic and toxicity is generated by untrustworthy behaviour. So the question is – do you work in an organisation that is trusting or toxic? Here are some factors that determine or are prevalent in a toxic culture. (See Clive Lewis’ book ‘Toxic’).

  • In the canteen workers say things like “they say we have a no blame culture – it’s just management love to know who it is they’re not blaming’ or ‘they’d sell my granny for a fiver if they could get away with it’. (Two direct – and repeatable – quotes from culture surveys).

More behaviourally:

  • Mistakes recur because a blame focus inhibits reporting and learning.
  • Defensiveness is rife and by knee jerk default any feedback that isn’t entirely positive or sycophantic is met by denial, resistance to change and/or anger.
  • People spend lots of time and energy ‘getting back’ at others – or just plotting to do so.
  • ‘Presenteeism’ and absenteeism are rife as is ‘foot dragging’.
  • Lots of your best (IE also most mobile) staff leave.
  • ‘Exit interviews are often declined to avoid the unpleasantness of criticising colleagues and/or because ‘you didn’t listen to a word I said when I wanted you to listen – so why help you now’?
  • There’s a distinct ‘them and us’ vibe with people never using words like ‘we’ when talking about the company.
  • There’s an absence of ‘citizenship’ or ‘above the line’ behaviour such as creativity or discretionary effort. (And with a safety hat on it’s very worth quoting the truism ‘compliance is often discretionary’)
  • There are clear cliques that generate low grade bullying and/ or harassment. (Or even high grade…)
  • Minor mistakes that would be ignored if committed by people in the clique are used to hammer those that aren’t. (For example, accidentally copying someone into a mail, using the ‘wrong’ e-mail address or turning down a promotion is not seen as self-aware / self-protecting but as a clear demonstration of a lack of loyalty.
  • People lose their temper and shout or send around mails and texts all in capitals with lots of exclamation marks
  • … and then don’t apologise when they calm down. Even if they turn out to be wrong… (sorry I mean EVEN IF THEY TURN OUT TO BE WRONG!!!!)
  • 1001 little things…

… it doesn’t have to be full blown tantrums and sulks that cause problems. We know from nudge theory that often it’s the little things that cause all the damage. (“Safely… but quickly” generating the job quickly as safely as is viable and the like). In the world of toxicity it’s similar and it’s the insidious ‘plausibly deniable’ behaviours that can cause most damage. For example, someone says something a bit supercilious and a colleague ignores it or smirks rather than reprimands them. Or perhaps someone mimics an accent in an unkind way, makes an inappropriate remark about looks or sex or maybe mispronounces a name then suggests the problem is all yours because, clearly, you’re high maintenance because you looked a little pained and disrespected.

In previous papers I’ve talked about culture being king and how organisations can set up either vicious or virtuous circles and how ‘good work is good for you’ and ‘bad work is bad for you’. Working in a toxic culture is very bad for you! Well unless you actively like the chance to bully people that is – but even then the best HR departments know it’s effective to offer bullies counselling too because they are invariably weak or damaged themselves.


In short, especially in these post-COVID times we need all the support and empowerment we can get. Even before long covid and the worldwide trauma colleagues in the UK were 35 times more likely to kill themselves than to suffer a fatal accident – so finding yourself working in a supportive genuinely caring environment rather than a toxic one can, literally, make all the difference between life and death.

If you got this far and / or found this interesting, then please click here for a fact based case study that illustrates the Anker and Marsh model of trust.

Click here for more from Tim’s blog series…

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Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
3 years ago

The “them and us” instilled in childhood at home, in school and only reinforced when arriving in the workplace where hierarchy still the norm and the ethos of “positive regard for all”, anything like an inclusive perceivably flatter culture has a long way to go yet, so long as, no-one has their ears-on, listening not to their peers and colleague’s.. No one is suggesting working interpersonal relationships implies friendships that would work outside of the workplace nor that everyone should not maintain a professional distance between work and home life but, without being enabled to “Disconnect” from work outside working… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  Nigel Dupree

Indeed Nigel. It’s not the situation it’s the person as we’re all prone to the fundamental attribution error – it’s not us/ me it’s them… so anything i do is justified and all sorts of vicious circles ensue And they’re thinking exactly the same thing of course … so open minded dialogue is the key …

Nigel Dupree
Nigel Dupree
3 years ago
Reply to  tim

Trouble is we are trying to recover so much in terms of quality of life, wellbeing, balance and equilibrium not just in the now 24/7 but, in the lead-up the 21st Century where the unintentional self-harming and self-medicating started as we lost any real sense of ownership, belonging, value, purpose and meaning as the supportive digital business machine that has morphed into No ‘5’ I’m alive, ‘feed-me’ more akin to the plant in the Rocky Horror Show Aubrey II – haha Unfortunately, until we follow the French, however annoying that is, and adopt the “Right to Disconnect” and effect some… Read more »

Philip Douglas
Philip Douglas
3 years ago

What goes into making a decent person? Because that’s what we need to solve the problems. Decent, moral and altruistic people at the top of the chain and particularly those involved in technological development. If a toxic culture can make a company lots of money, what will force them to change? Is it the job of society or an organisation to create decent people?  In our digital world people have much more information to decide who they should place their trust in and the consequences of that trust being broken. Fake or inaccurate news and information has never been more… Read more »

Tim Marsh
Tim Marsh
3 years ago
Reply to  Philip Douglas

I’ve obviously touched on smething that resonates here. Phillip and Nigel contributing two of the most detialed and impassioned responses to any article that I’ve posted here.