Calling out bad behaviour, toxic people, teams and cultures

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

Hello and welcome back.

Truth is, I had my second blog all planned out, I would introduce myself, my values so whoever is reading gains an insight into who I am and learn more about me. But then I got distracted by the #mafsreunion with 2 million other Aussies. Reality TV is a guilty pleasure of mine but personally, I am more into Amazing Race being a lover of all things travel, Real Housewives of Beverly Hills for the wardrobes and interior designs and Survivor for the strategic game play.

Back to Married at First Sight or MAFS for short. Those who are not familiar with the show, it is "Australia's most controversial experiment. After being matched by three relationship experts, 20 strangers looking for love meet their partners for the first time at the altar in the quest to find true happiness." That's how Channel 9 describes and sells it. Basically, it's where random strangers marry people they have never met and enter into a social experiment where they live their weeks in drama-fuelled excess.

I have to be honest, I did not watch the season so this is certainly not an opinion piece on #MAFS. I watched two episodes at most and then the reunion. For a hilarious and tongue-in-cheek reunion finale recap go to the bottom of this post.

This blog is based on what I witnessed and watched and I must say, I was utterly disappointed and horrified at some of the behaviour that went on. It did get me thinking about toxic people and behaviours in life and in the workplace. I was also inspired by two articles on this topic that I shared on LinkedIn recently by Hugh Shields "CEOs Must Tackle Toxic Senior Leaders Who are Damaging the Firm" and Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmion "The #1 toxicity factor at work" which I have linked at the bottom of this post.

So, the purpose of this blog is calling out and recognising bad behaviour, toxic people, teams and cultures and ways to handle the situation.

In Hugh Shields' article he said

”if the executive is not open to change, or fails to understand why change is necessary, coaching will fail. Fortunately, most executives really do want to change but don’t know how.”

This can be true for us both professionally and personally. If we ourselves are not open to changing our negative and toxic behaviour then we are not learning the reasons why we get into trouble in the first place.

Case in point, there was a particular incident in MAFS where a lady by the name of Cyrell thought she was doing the right thing, sticking up for her values and her friends, calling out the people who had cheated on their partners and subsequently breaking up marriages (and hearts). She believed she was doing the right thing and in theory I understood what she was saying and where she was coming from.

However she lost me because her tone, volume and self-righteous moral high-ground argument did not resonate with me. Why? Because Cyrell confronting the women, calling out their behaviour so openly, so negatively and so inappropriately created a toxic environment. Yelling and screaming your way through life trying to get your point across isn't the way to go about it nor is hurling derogatory comments and abuse to those who get in your way. The impact of the behaviour created a toxic environment that led to division amongst the group.

In Dr Amina's post she specifically talked about psychological safety

"If you’re fortunate, you may have experienced an environment built on psychological safety i.e. one where individuals can take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

In my humble and honest opinion, Cyrell did not create a place or environment where people felt safe to speak, be heard or be vulnerable in front of one another. She could have had an adult conversation and allowing them to see what they did was wrong, to own it and be accountable for it or at the very least, get them to understand and see her point of view. Instead, she created an emotional cyclone of unacceptable behaviour that escalated rather quickly and made everyone around her feel uncomfortable.

Signs of a toxic workplace and culture

Left unattended, a toxic work culture will negatively impact on the viability and success of an organisation, it will harm productivity and have a direct impact on the bottom line.

This is supported by a study conducted by Randstad stating that:

  • 38% of workers want to leave their jobs due to a toxic work culture or feel they don’t fit in

  • 58% have left jobs, or are considering leaving, because of negative office politics and

  • 60% have left jobs, or are considering leaving, because they don't like their direct supervisors

Therefore, it is absolutely critical that organisations act quickly and look out for any red-flag behaviours or signs of toxicity especially from leaders of the business or those who have the responsibility of looking after people because it starts and ends at the top.

Throughout my career I have experienced toxic workplaces and psychologically unsafe working environments. Some of the key signs of a toxic work place range from:

  1. Rampant and harmful gossip and whispering (usually caused by confidentiality and trust breaches)

  2. Deceitfulness and dishonesty

  3. Unhealthy competition amongst employees (drama and infighting reside in a workplace fuelled with personal battles and competition)

  4. No clear common goals, vision and values creating a lack of unity amongst teams

  5. Threat and manipulative politicking

  6. Individual agendas where people work from an “I” space rather than helping others in the company

  7. Those who try to improve their own standing by bringing others down

  8. Lack of transparency, collaboration and communication

  9. General disrespect for others point of view, a righteousness where people are left feeling devalued

  10. Lack of ownership or accountability where problems are passed around like a football wanting to be scored. Denial, blame and excuse-itis lives here.

Cyrell, although right in her assessment created more damage than good because she did not take accountability for her own behaviour. She did not rise above it and instead subjected herself to below the line thinking, a state of negativity, blame and denial.

A clear example of below the line thinking was when Martha, one of the girls Cyrell had confronted went to apologise to her and Cyrell instantly shot down the apology, she did not listen and was not open to engagement. Instead, she became defensive, and blamed Martha for the situation and did not take any accountability for her actions. Worse, she belittled, demeaned and subjected Martha to rude, unwarranted nasty comments on her appearance.

Disappointingly, no one in the group called her out on her behaviour not even the psychologists or the relationship experts on the show.

What to do and not to do in that situation

I know that feeling of rejection and humiliation as I've been on the receiving end of that toxicity. It’s not nice, in fact, it is pretty ugly. Anxiety, stress and worry eats at you. You lose confidence and are constantly doubting yourself and your decisions. Imposter syndrome thrives in this environment.

However, in the early stages of my career, I have led that same way. I believed that to be heard you had to be strong and aggressive to get your point across, a “bull in a china shop” to get what wanted. I thought I knew it all and had the ability to convince others to my way of thinking but it didn't work for me. In fact, it hindered my progress. So I completely flipped that behaviour.

But then I got caught up in wanting to please others so much that I subjected myself and those I led to this awful toxic behaviour of blame, excuses and denial. Where I covered others mistakes and justified bad behaviour, ultimately I became part of the problem rather than the solution. I was now the person who would jump on the toxic grenades thrown to try to protect those around me. I allowed this to happen time and time again. I was naive and I could not see how my actions affected others.

I learned quickly that I had a talent to command and influence others and I needed to mature that talent so I could make decisions and take action. The big lesson for me was to become aware of those toxic behaviours and begin to recognise them in myself and others. I quickly understood what kind of leader I did not want to be so I worked tirelessly towards being the kind of leader I did want to be.

I wanted to be inspirational, I wanted to be strong and fearless, someone who was open, empathetic, collaborative and inclusive. I wanted to be the kind of leader who cares about work and people, that helps others along the way and supports them in times of need. As I watched, listened and modelled the behaviours of leaders I was inspired by, inevitably I learnt (and continue to learn) the art of leadership.

As a leader I learnt to:

  • Articulate my thoughts and feelings in a way that wasn't too confronting

  • To deal with circumstances and issues better

  • To resolve conflict better

  • To be more open and transparent

  • That it’s ok to make mistakes and learn from them

  • To be accountable and make others accountable for their actions

  • To be brave and call out bad behaviour, toxic people

  • Finally I learnt ways to “live” the values and culture in an organisation by setting a good example.

I always say to the teams I lead that "I am not always right but I am always sure". Meaning, I'm going to be decisive and be sure in my decisions. I am sure because I am prepared and accountable for the impact and the learnings from those decisions and any opportunity to create change. Having all the information and facts especially listening to those around me helps but I am not going to be right all of the time (even though I want to be) and that's OK.

You just have to be open to learn, to change your behaviour and thinking because that's how we grow as people, and from my experience, that's how you create high-performing teams, where innovation thrives and where the magic happens.

So when partnering with or working with companies particularly when given the responsibility of leadership, I am actively creating an environment or culture where everyone feels:

  • Psychologically safe

  • Free to make mistakes and learn

  • Heard and listened to

  • Sure that I will tackle the toxicity head on

This is easy to say and not easy to do. It requires a magnitude of patience, incredibly strong leadership, high level communication skills and an open, transparent and forgiving heart. So, if you want to confront bad behaviour and toxic people:

  • Be transparent - tackle issues head on and call it out immediately. Do not allow it to fester.

  • Be respectful - always have a one on one conversation first. I have a three strike rule. I give the person three opportunities and if that doesn't work, escalate whether to a more senior manger or HR. Whatever you do, do not go around your boss unless they are the problem.

  • Be Honest - do not go around people telling everyone else about the problem, gossip or whisper in the workplace. Go straight to the source and let them know how you feel. Nip it in the bud.

  • Decide if this is right for you - think about if this is the right place and culture for you and make some tough decisions. It's not worth the mental anguish, heartache and pain. As much as you believe you can change peoples thinking, perception or behaviours, you cannot make anyone change. Trust me, I've been there and speak from experience.

Focussing and working with your strengths is important. Understanding and having awareness of your weaknesses is equally important. Be open to change, listening to feedback, good or constructive.

Finally, I believe that leadership is a responsibility and not a right. We are here to serve not dictate. Culture is critical and the secret ingredient to the success of any organisation and if the culture is toxic, we have inevitability failed as leaders...importantly, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves and change our behaviour and thinking.

Thoughts on married at first sight finale? Was Cyrell's behaviour right or wrong? What are your red-flags and signs of toxic workplace? What did you do about toxic people and behaviour? What learnings can you share about toxic people and workplaces?

#toxicworkplace #culturematters #leadershipthoughts #experiences #workplaceculture #toxicbehaviour #toxicpeople #leadership #culture #teams #servantleadership #mistakes #keylearnings #mafs #marriedatfirstsight

Reference articles:

James Weir's hilarious and tongue-in-cheek reunion finale recap go here and here.

Hugh Shields "CEOs Must Tackle Toxic Senior Leaders Who are Damaging the Firm"

Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmion "The #1 toxicity factor at work"


Joana is the Executive Director & Principle Consultant of Simple Scalable Solutions. She is a certified and senior practitioner of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) and award winner of 2017 Young Business Executive for NSW Regional Business Chamber.

She is passionate about empowering businesses to create an inclusive, collaborative, innovative, socially responsible and high performing workplace (and culture) that values their customers, their people, their community and the greater good because her ultimate goal, is to change the world, one business at a time.

Curious? Get in touch or if you want to learn more about Joana, simply go to and follow her here or subscribe to our blogs.

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