From the Bystander Effect to The Blame Game: The Real Cost of Toxic Culture

Share this post | 2 min read


From the Bystander Effect to The Blame Game: The Real Cost of Toxic Culture


Most companies fail to call out the truth about their culture being toxic because there is no single action, decision, or cause that can pinpoint how everyone interprets the environment. Consequently, many teams will operate and never address the elephant in the company.


Some companies will rely on management teams to handle culture. Managers often fall short in fixing company culture because their impact is limited to direct reports. Moreover, many are not trained to understand or act on cultural issues within their area. Managers tend to make mistakes that further reinforce the toxicity that exists. Here are the common mistakes managers make which reinforce a toxic culture:


The Blame Game


Blame often means pointing the finger to people as the problem opposed to discovering the underlying issue creating the toxic environment. Managers are human and often build relationships with people on their teams and may lack engagement with others. Those of which they don’t interact with are often easily dismissed when concerns arise. Managers will perpetuate the victim mentality for those they support whether it is warranted or not. The unbalanced support and lack of impartiality within the team ignites the culture. Behavior of employees will adjust accordingly to protect their own interest.


Result: Lack of a balanced manager-employee relationship leads to people exiting the company, continues the toxic culture, and divides employees.


Fix: Implement skip-level meetings with staff throughout the year to assess interaction between employee and managers. A skip-level is performed by a senior manager with randomly selected direct reports of their leadership team.

Skip-levels also provide opportunity for feedback on management


Bystander Effect


This is when bystanders hear things like “are you shocked they would do that”, or “I am just here to do my job”. The ownership of upkeeping good culture deteriorates slowly but effectively. If enough people do not believe the company supports good decisions, doing the right thing and the worse is always expected. Those ideas and attitudes are shared amongst employees and continue to fester within the organization. The bystander effect is known by psychologists as a lack of action by individuals to fix, correct or help someone because they believe someone else with more skill or capability is going to jump in. Consequently, everyone within the environment becomes an onlooker. As the culture is reinforced people draw further away from believing it can be saved or that they have a role in saving it.


Result: Talent exits the company and excuses are made as to why that talent left prematurely. The environment recycles the same issues with new employees.


Fix: Make culture a company goal and implement responsibility at all levels. Encourage employees to acknowledge peers and use positive reinforcement by incentivizing employees who are acknowledged for going over and beyond. Create culture teams with employees from various roles and areas of the organization. Foster and support the creation of engagement opportunities through meetups, corporate-wide games or challenge projects. This allows employees who may not normally receive acknowledgement or notice within their roles to step up and engage with the company.


It can turn around! A toxic culture often festers in a place where this is a system of class. Those who are accepted into the culture and those outside of it. Many will associate the acceptance of the culture with the senior management team since they have the power to change and reinforce it. Employees often see managers interactions from a bird’s eye perspective, meaning they cannot see leaders being affected by the negative parts of the culture they experience.


Consequently, it takes management's acknowledgement and commitment to addressing it from a top down approach. Once leaders acknowledge the perils, divide or ominous air that torments the workspace they will automatically start to earn respect from employees. Every situation will be unique depending on how long the culture has been toxic and the things that forced it into that direction however a leader will emerge with a purpose to correct the workplace wrongs and champion the new culture.


How is your culture?

Use this worksheet to reflect on where your company stands.




About the Author

Dr. Amera McCoy

Dr. Amera McCoy is an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist who is the Owner and Founder of McCoy Consulting LLC, an organization that offers a suite of services for businesses including advisory, lending, coaching, writing and employee workshops. Visit her at


Subscribe to our blog