Are we operating in toxic workplaces fuelled by complacency culture?

Kevin Low
4 min readMar 3, 2022


Photo by Spencer Davis from Pexels

In today’s work life, too much thought goes into how to do the work rather than the culture and enabling environment that surrounds the work. There are countless anecdotes about people at their deathbed would not wish they had more days to work; or stories of the employee who passed away and the company was just busy trying to find someone to replace him/her, whilst complaining about the hassle and delays caused by his/her death. All of these tries to discourage people from pouring out way too much of themselves into work even as our society as a whole is actually increasingly consumed by work.

What I don’t understand is that for almost all of our work in life, there are ways of making it more fun, conducive to put effort into, and to stress us positively. Yet we don’t do that, nor explore ways of doing that. Good culture that enables rather than disable is a luxury, people say. And they see it being at odds with generating value and profit, as though precious resources are either committed to employee well-being or shareholder returns. This is just lack of imagination and the inability to think dynamically and across time.

For some reason, a 2015 article from INSEAD appeared on 2 separate of my social media platform news feed, shared by different people and with different commentary. It was about the fall of Nokia; and yet as I was reading through it, I am struck by how applicable those lessons are today. And how important it is that we invest into reworking our culture.

I shuddered at several parts of the article that describes behaviours no different from what I’ve observed in large, important institutions and business organisations that I’ve had experience with. Allow me to quote 3 portions of the article that really stood out for me:

Although they realised that Nokia needed a better operating system for its phones to match Apple’s iOS, they knew it would take several years to develop, but were afraid to publicly acknowledge the inferiority of Symbian, their operating system at the time, for fear of appearing defeatist to external investors, suppliers, and customers and thus losing them quickly. “It takes years to make a new operating system. That’s why we had to keep the faith with Symbian,” said one top manager. Nobody wanted to be the bearer of bad news.

Hiding bad news is a result of the lack of an open communicative culture resulting from poor responses to ‘bad news’. It will be reinforced by a sense of helplessness about the communication; either by the belief that management will not believe it, or will not respond to it. Such erosion of trust does not bode well.

Fearing the reactions of top managers, middle managers remained silent or provided optimistic, filtered information. One middle manager told us “the information did not flow upwards. Top management was directly lied to…I remember examples when you had a chart and the supervisor told you to move the data points to the right [to give a better impression]. Then your supervisor went to present it to the higher-level executives.

Encouraging miscommunication, whether intentional or not, will only lead to organisational decline. This is especially if the flow of information about reality or truth is obscured, and top management makes decision on the basis of such flawed or misconstrued information. This is the issue when there’s too much emotion caught up in reporting. Reporting should ideally be unemotional, clinical and rational.

[T]op managers also applied pressure for faster performance in personnel selection. They later admitted to us that they favoured new blood who displayed a “can do” attitude.

This led middle managers to over-promise and under-deliver. One middle manager told us that “you can get resources by promising something earlier, or promising a lot. It’s sales work.” This was made worse by the lack of technical competence among top managers, which influenced how they could assess technological limitations during goal setting.

Misalignment of incentives that drives unhelpful behaviours throughout the organisation. So to that extent, being able to create a culture that implicitly rewards honest behaviours through praise and recognition; punishing or frowning upon over-promising, and inaccurate reporting, sows the seeds for success of an organisation. There will naturally be a tension between behaviours which promotes the interest of the organisation and the need to ‘perform’ at an individual level. The ability of the organisation culture to protect behaviours that promotes the sustainability and long-term interest of the organisation is so vitally important.

Yet in most of today’s organisation, we have not invested sufficient thought into the culture; focusing instead to utilise our resources to drive work performance, measured mostly by short-term metrics. A good place to start is really by reworking the prevailing narrative, especially rewiring the mindset obsessed with linear, unidimensional growth. Caring for the mental health and well-being of employees at the level of supporting them to deconflict those tensions mentioned above will go a long way.



Kevin Low

Alive, breathing, growing and sipping coffee in Singapore. Thinking | Writing | Career-coaching —