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4 toxic archetypes in work environments

We came up with 4 fictitious archetypes that encompass toxic habits in the office. Within these four profiles we find real bad practices.

October 20, 2022

If we stop and think about it, the animal world is not so different from the corporate world. It's described as an environment where only the strongest and fittest survive, where the big fish eat the little fish, and opportunities depend on our agility and survival instinct.

It's in the "corporate habitat" where we find an enormous diversity of creatures, all with great virtues that face the race for productivity and innovation while also holding some toxic habits and behaviors.

In this article, we will talk about some profiles that "inhabit" workspaces and can lead us to poor failure management and generate adverse environments for innovation.

To do so, we've come up with four fictional archetypes that encompass toxic habits in the office. Although they are satire, within these four profiles, we find actual bad practices that, to some extent, we may have applied in our professional lives, without even realizing it. 

It’s important to point out that these profiles don't represent actual psychological archetypes. Great organizational cultures don't seek to mold or manipulate; but rather to manage with healthy dynamics that facilitate an appropriate way of working.

That said, we are ready to dive in!

The Fault investigator

This profile prowls the boardroom, looking for its next prey, and feeds on others' failures.
The "Fault Investigator" finds those responsible for every mistake and has the ability to avoid taking responsibility for their own when they occur.

Throughout our lives, we've been taught that failure and mistakes have a negative connotation and come with a rather high price to pay. That's why this profile is linked to toxic habits such as:

  • Making value judgments: Beliefs and biases derived from failure, sometimes ignoring the context or external situations. When a person fails, they are straight-away "incompetent," jumping to conclusions and labels that affect our decision-making and deprive others of second chances.

  • Generate shame: Although shame is a normal feeling in the process of failing when there's external validation that dictates that "we are bad" rather than "we have done something wrong," it reinforces and spreads fear and shame. This can deter others from ameding their mistakes and decreases confidence in their abilities to improve in the future.  

  • Pointing fingers: When there's poor failure management, there's so much fear of error that when it happens, finger-pointing occurs to avoid consequences or appear to be more competent. This can be done indirectly, with passive-aggressive and covert comments, or with violent and frontal communication. Both can cause the involved to react defensively or step back when cooperating on a solution.

When there's a "Fault investigator" archetype in ourselves or within the team, it generates disproportionate consequences for failure. That is: we punish ourselves disproportionately, causing an atmosphere of fear and constant tension. This can lead to hiding mistakes and avoiding asking for help.

The Excessive optimist

Although our more primitive side reacts to external threats with fear and caution, our rational brain resorts to other defense resources such as optimism.

While this is a handy tool in some cases, the "Excessive Optimist" takes it to another level. This profile inhabits all office spaces and uses their natural optimism skills to repress feelings and nuance unpleasant situations that should be addressed objectively.

An "Excessive optimist" profile in workspaces can lead to:

  • Condescending consensus: While consensus is helpful when there's little expert knowledge on a topic, it can sometimes kill divergent thinking. An "Excessive optimist" profile often aims to achieve conformity and harmony in a group which can lead to irrational decisions.

  • Survivor bias: This biascan interfere with decision-making processes. It leads us to focus merely on successful projects, ignoring those that failed. Ignoring other points of view and failure stories can lead us to imitate unrealistic models in different contexts.

  • Confirmation bias: This happens when we tend to focus and give importance to information that confirms or favors our existing beliefs and opinions. It can lead us to believe that our ideas are the best and that the path we choose is ideal, dismissing other points of view.

  • Illusions of invulnerability: Our brain tends to believe that we are special, with the exception to the negative. This illusion is a false belief that our team, project, or company is resistant to everything. This can lead the "Excessive optimist" to take unnecessary or unwise risks.

  • Becoming mental guardians: This happens when an optimistic profile adopts a "protective" role within the team and its environment. They consider that certain adverse information may affect or compromise the team, and therefore decide to hide/omit it.

Optimism cannot be absent in our day-to-day. However, it does require to be balanced with objectivity and to look for the most realistic and readily-available solutions to any adversity.

The Individualist

In the unique ecosystem of work, it's common to find groupings that work as a team (or pack) for a common good. However, it's also common to encounter "Individualist" profiles.

Ignoring the need for mutual cooperation, these "lone wolves" decide to work on their own, interact only when necessary with the team (or less), and always keep their interests above others.

Thus it's not uncommon to find phenomena such as:

  • Focusing on results and recognition: Systemically, we tend to reward results and ignore the process and lessons along the way. This profile constantly puts a lot of weight on the final result and seeks individual recognition. Ignoring the efforts of key people who made the end objective even possible.

  • Common knowledge effect: This is one of the most common behaviors in the workplace. It's the typical "it has always been done this way." When in leadership, an "Individualist" profile could defend and impose obsolete processes, ignoring new ideas and approaches.

  • Knowledge hiding: As the name indicates, this is a practice where valuable knowledge valuable knowledge about specific processes,or previous experiences, is hidden. This profile hides this type of knowledge for many reasons, such as having control and generating dependence or protecting privileged and advantaged positions.

Naturally, these practices generate an environment of distrust, where new ideas are demerited and destroyed, and the exchange of knowledge decreases.

The Evasive

Our final profile is that of the "Evasive” person. Although it's related to the "Excessive Optimist," here avoidance tends to be more passive and inclined to low involvement and engagement.

The "Evasive" inhabits isolated spaces in the office, and when faced with situations of attention or failure, they flee to their work cubicle or bury their heads in the sand to go unnoticed.

Sometimes this profile generates a certain apathy for the work environment, and their avoidance leads to habits such as:

  • Avoid difficult conversations: The "Evasive" profile will avoid any kind of uncomfortable conversations. This can be an honest talk about a misunderstanding, an unfitting hire, a new product error, feedback, and so on. This profile will try to downplay the importance of some conversations, address them with humor, or straight-away cut off the communication.

  • Self-censorship: It's a manipulation of one's opinions and behaviors to fit a work environment or culture. This is a clear sign that occurs in areas of psychological danger at work.

  • Ruinous Empathy: The opposite of Radical Candor. This is when we avoid speaking our minds or giving feedback for fear of hurting others. While it's necessary to be compassionate and act out of vulnerability, ruinous empathy can lead "Evasive" people to be unchallenged to seek improvement in their coworkers, work duties, and even in themselves.

  • Illusions of unanimity: Around "Evasive" profiles, we can constantly encounter silences that cause illusions of unanimity. In the absence of counter-opinions, there's a false belief that an agreement or consensus was reached.

This constant avoidance at work may be a symptom of psychological danger or fearing the consequences of making a mistake or making a controversial or absurd opinion.

Beyond the profiles that may exist in the "work ecosystem," the important thing is to have a strong and transparent organizational culture that can manage people and have well-established processes to know how to react and act in the face of failures and crises.

At Fuckup Nights, we recognize the growing importance that the world of work gives to its culture, and that is why with programs such as The Failure Program, we seek to change the way in which the members of a company see and relate to concepts such as failure, innovation, and teamwork.


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