Are You Poisoning the Well?

In 2016, I was burning out. I knew I wanted to leave my job, but I wasn’t in a place to leave it yet. Over the previous few years, and due to many circumstances, the environment had grown toxic. My goal in what would become my last year with that organization was not to add to the toxicity—to not make it worse for those around me.

During a particularly stressful time for everyone in the office, our once-envied cohesive culture seemed to be crumbling around us. Infighting seemed to grow to an all-time high, and no one was really sure what to do about it.

I reflected for a bit on different ways to approach the problem and started asking myself how it got that bad in the first place. It’s easy to spread blame around, and it’s easy to find external circumstances or changes that came down around the time our culture started to shift. Then I remembered some words on the board in our conference room: “A culture is created by what is tolerated”. Another way to say this is “the culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” (Gruenert and Whitaker, 2015).

I wasn’t in a leadership position, but I was one of the most senior people on the team. My goal may have been to not add to the toxicity, but I was still shaping the culture by what I was tolerating and what I was feeding into.

Reflecting this way, I asked myself “how did I contribute to how we got here?” We seemed to have grown a culture of bickering, infighting and complaining about each other. I didn’t feel I fed into this, but maybe complaining about each other became acceptable after we tolerated complaining about clients, and I certainly complained about clients. Maybe complaining about clients became acceptable after we tolerated complaining about headquarters, and I certainly complained about headquarters more than I complained about clients.

In that moment, I realized I had set a bad example early on, and I had tolerated behaviors that spun from that. In that moment, I realized, despite what I thought were my best efforts, I had poisoned the well. I tried to talk myself out of it; surely there were way worse things I could have been doing to poison the well than just tolerate some complaining. After all, we need a safe space to vent our frustrations, right? This was a hard pill to swallow, but it sparked team conversations to establish new office ground rules to try to raise the bar on what was tolerated.

There are differences between having a safe place to share concerns and frustrations and just complaining. Complaining feels good, and we don’t generally want to shift the focus away when we are complaining. A key way complaining and sharing concerns differ is the extent that we would stay problem focused instead of switching to solution focused.

I’ve learned fastest way for me to identify whether I’m problem focused (complaining) or solution focused is how readily I accept suggestions regarding potential solutions to the problem. If I dismiss every suggestion, or if I would suddenly prefer to talk to someone else about the situation (someone that will let me complain without trying to helpful), then I am stuck in a problem focused mode.

The other way to distinguish complaining from sharing concerns is to examine my motives for sharing information. Maybe I just want to vent. Maybe I feel exposed and am lashing out. Maybe I feel I need to be perceived by others a certain way and this “evidence” will help me accomplish that.

A personal strategy I started implementing to examine my motives before speaking was to ask myself “who/what am I serving by saying _____.” If I am serving my righteous indignation, maybe I shouldn’t share it. If I am serving my biased view of a situation, maybe I shouldn’t share it. If I am serving my desire to be right, maybe I shouldn’t share it. If I am serving the group by providing valuable insight, maybe I should share it.

Going forward, I want you to think about the culture around you. Maybe it’s a team, an office or home. Is there something about that culture that isn’t working? If so, what are you tolerating that might not be serving you or your group/team/family?

I also want you to gain deeper self-awareness in your interactions with others. Examine your motive for sharing information by asking yourself who or what is served by you sharing that information. Will this information better those around you? Will this information make you feel better?


Gruenert, S., & Whitaker, T. (2015). School culture rewired: How to define, assess, and transform it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

#culture #team #toxicity

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