American Association for Physician Leadership

Problem Solving

Are You Enabling a Toxic Culture Without Realizing It?

Celia Swanson

January 20, 2020


Is there a toxic culture happening at your workplace without you realizing it? Harvard Business Review recounts the story of a manager who was a 'passive enabler.'

During my tenure as executive vice president of Walmart, I hired a brilliant strategist to create a marketing strategy for the Sam’s Club division. Her results were powerful; the campaign was simple yet highly relevant. We became friendly, and I considered the hire a success until one of the team members approached me. It turned out that the strategist had been incredibly hostile with her colleagues, making them feel marginalized and worthless. This had gone on for more than a year, and many on the team were considering leaving. After being unaware of the problem for so long, I took immediate action and fired her.

Though I was able to convince the team’s top talent to stay, it took years to earn back their trust. Now I see how I enabled the strategist by not looking beyond her results. And I see that the team’s hesitancy to speak up allowed the toxicity to continue unabated. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of every individual — no matter his or her organizational status — to step up and lead by example in a toxic workplace culture.

There are two types of team members: passive enablers and active enablers. Passive enablers — which is what I was — are typically unaware of what’s happening. They often mean well but are blinded by “achievement mode” and are focused on driving results. They naively trust that their leaders are relying on a similar value system and leadership style.

Active enablers see what is happening but fail to take action. They are crucial to combating toxic behavior because they are typically in the trenches of the problem and can best describe and document the situation. But they can be hesitant to speak up about what they are experiencing because they think they lack the status to bring a complaint forward or fear that there will be repercussions. They assume someone else will take a stand, rationalize that the situation may not be that bad or delay action to wait for more proof to validate their uncertainty.

Passive enablers need to look deeply into how results are achieved and act with urgency when problems arise. They can do this by being visible to their teams — which means regularly walking around the office, dropping in on colleagues and having one-on-one meetings. This will give your team members opportunities to voice concerns.

Active enablers need to recognize that choosing not to speak up is, in fact, a choice to support the toxic behavior. They have an obligation to encourage healthy and respectful workplaces, and they can start by finding people they trust who can offer advice on how to handle the situation or who have the authority to take action.

Making the decision to speak up against a toxic culture is one of the most difficult decisions employees may face in their careers. When leaders communicate clearly and actively demonstrate what will not be tolerated, employees understand that their concerns will be heard and taken seriously.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Celia Swanson

Interested in sharing leadership insights? Contribute

For over 45 years.

The American Association for Physician Leadership has helped physicians develop their leadership skills through education, career development, thought leadership and community building.

The American Association for Physician Leadership (AAPL) changed its name from the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE) in 2014. We may have changed our name, but we are the same organization that has been serving physician leaders since 1975.


Mail Processing Address
PO Box 96503 I BMB 97493
Washington, DC 20090-6503

Payment Remittance Address
PO Box 745725
Atlanta, GA 30374-5725
(800) 562-8088
(813) 287-8993 Fax



AAPL providers leadership development programs designed to retain valuable team members and improve patient outcomes.

American Association for Physician Leadership®

formerly known as the American College of Physician Executives (ACPE)