Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: Living in Fear & Blame

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Unicorn Project" by Gene Kim. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are commons signs of a toxic work environment? How do fear and blame break employees?

The Unicorn Project by Gene Kim presents a fictional case study of Parts Unlimited, a once-mighty auto parts manufacturer that’s fallen behind the times and its competitors. This is mainly because of the soul-crushing work conditions it’s allowed to develop in its IT department.

Let’s look at what Kim believes are symptoms of toxic company culture.

Symptoms of a Toxic Workplace

Throughout his story, Kim paints a picture of an IT department that fails to function on every level, to the detriment of the company and its workers. All of the problems Kim describes are self-inflicted—none can be blamed on forces outside the business. The specific signs of a toxic work environment he highlights are a culture of fear and blame, a production process stunted by a lack of trust and feedback, and systems that have grown so complicated that it’s nearly impossible to change anything for the better.

Kim says that the root of workplace toxicity is a culture of fear and blame. At Parts Unlimited, mistakes are punished, and so is calling attention to errors. This creates a climate in which people are encouraged to hide their mistakes and avoid taking risks that might lead to innovation. A climate of fear isn’t just bad for business—it’s bad for workers’ mental and physical health. For example, long hours and lack of sleep during the multi-day Phoenix Project rollout results in every IT worker having to call in sick at some point.

(Shortform note: Fear is at its root an evolutionary response that’s helped our species survive through the ages, but continual exposure to fear can have a negative, compounding effect. In Radical Acceptance, psychologist Tara Brach explains that when fear is the norm, you spend your life in a defensive mindset rather than living your full potential. Fear can lead to a trance-like state in which constant worries stop you from living in the present. In addition to the body’s physical response to fear, your mind can get trapped in self-destructive habits, such as withdrawing from others and obsessing over harmful internal narratives that perpetuate a cycle of blame like the one Kim depicts within Parts Unlimited.)  

On top of their fear, employees are frustrated when they can’t do anything because of bureaucratic rules. In the story, when Maxine devises a fix to an error in the Data Hub, the rules prevent her from uploading it herself. She has to submit her fix to QA, where it might wait two weeks before it’s tested and passed along to the waiting line at Ops, where it might take another month to be deployed. Every roadblock was instituted in the past with the best of intentions, but they’ve calcified into a bureaucratic maze that reinforces the message that the company doesn’t trust its employees to be competent at their jobs. 

(Shortform note: Like Kim, management expert Peter F. Drucker, author of The Effective Executive, critiqued bureaucracies for their focus on rules over outcomes. He suggested that as in-house monopolies, bureaucratic support systems such as Human Resources departments have no motive to increase productivity and should therefore be outsourced when possible, reducing their administrative drag on a business. However, other authors point out that bureaucracy does have advantages: When it works, it establishes a structure by which leaders can steer an organization. It also helps enforce rules by which company resources can be allocated fairly, from sick leave to departmental budgets.)

Kim describes every step along this path where work must wait on someone’s time or approval as a dependency that bogs down production. Dependencies do more than just slow a system down—they make simple processes more complicated. Every layer of dependency in a system creates a mounting level of inertia that makes even simple corrections needlessly hard to apply. What this means is that employees waste their time and resources wading through bureaucracy instead of working toward business goals. Navigating the dependency maze is a full-time job in itself, and it comes at a very high cost for the company. 

(Shortform note: L. David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around describes a real-life example of dependencies crippling an organization. When Marquet became captain of the USS Santa Fe, the worst-performing submarine in the US Navy, the crew was hamstrung by their rigid dependence on old routines and mandatory authorizations. Department heads couldn’t get approval for changes, meetings were delayed because of one person’s absence, and even requests for leave were ignored because of the long chain of command they had to go through. To correct conditions on the Santa Fe, Marquet had to change the sub’s culture entirely.)

Signs of a Toxic Work Environment: Living in Fear & Blame

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Gene Kim's "The Unicorn Project" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Unicorn Project summary:

  • Why the work of IT services must align with a company's goals
  • How an IT department can turn itself around after failure
  • The three pillars of IT management: workflow, feedback, and constant improvement

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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