To Truly Change a Toxic Culture, Make a Business Case

by Alycia Sutor /

A fascinating recent Harvard Business Review article “How Masculinity Contests Undermine Organizations and What to Do About It” unpacks the characteristics of “masculinity contest cultures” in organizations, cultures that prize masculine norms such as never showing weakness, working long hours to prove stamina, putting work ahead of family, and engaging in cut-throat competition at the expense of colleagues. Unsurprisingly, a culture that operates according to these norms becomes a toxic work environment for everyone, and particularly for women and minorities who, by default, cannot fully participate in the contest and when they try are belittled and dismissed.


The piece goes on to lament the ineffectiveness of many trainings that attempt to change the cultures of organizations like these. They fail because the organizational norms are at odds with the training content. At best, the training merely pays lip service to a set of values all employees understand the organization doesn’t actually believe in. At worst, it can backfire and even increase instances of harassment and bullying. It can be hard to get buy-in from leaders who set the tone when they see the interventions as a threat to a system that rewards their behavior.


However, cultural change doesn’t have to happen through human resources, and in fact it may have to enter through another door to really be effective. The most powerful thing to understand about masculinity contest culture is that it doesn’t just harm the employees who work under it. It has a negative effect on profits, business development, innovation, and client experience. Once more for the guys in the back row: Toxic masculinity is bad for business.


At GrowthPlay, our approach to helping your firm is based in a methodology that fosters healthy, sustainable workplaces where growth comes from collaboration, engaged client service, and a holistic approach to the bottom line that considers not just short-term profits but long-term relationships and the benefits of a truly generative culture. And that is good for business—the data doesn’t lie. For example:


Innovation happens in organizations that foster psychological safety. Team members feel welcome to take risks and pose new ideas, and this leads to innovative solutions that lead to growth.


Firms that truly engage with their clients—by creating communication channels, truly welcoming feedback, and partnering with clients to craft solutions—enjoy far more  fruitful long-term relationships that lead to growth.


Organizations that prioritize diversity—diversity of background, education, experience, and competencies—deliver better solutions for their clients, and those lead to growth.


Sensing a theme? A firm’s leadership doesn’t have to set out to change “masculinity contest culture” head on. Instead, when they work to align the organization’s values with what drives growth, they will automatically begin to dismantle the toxic system and replace it with a brighter, more generative future.