top of page

How to Create a Non-Toxic Work Culture: The Psychology of Kindness

Updated: Oct 25, 2023

"I just did what anyone else would do." These words often accompany tales of extraordinary courage, like saving a stranger from icy waters or facing great risks for the greater good of humankind. We may downplay these acts as something anyone would do, but they reveal an innate human drive to stand up for what's right, to conquer our fears, and 'do the right thing', despite what's at stake personally.

But how easy is this at work? The words that spring to mind are more likely to be "keep quiet" or "you can't win just let it go". Doing the right thing seems somehow not quite so easy in the work environment.

RNLI surf life saver going over massive wave in sea
Surf Life saver, RNLI, Cornwall.

image RNLI

A Culture of Integrity, Honesty and Purpose

Many companies emphasize integrity, honesty, and speaking up, but the reality is often harsher. In a 2019 study, 69% of whistleblowers faced job loss and blacklisting, despite many companies having a carefully crafted whistleblowing policy. But courage extends beyond this; it's also seen in the everyday injustices, moral distress, and workplace incivility. The low-level harassment of competitive managers, the feeling that you can't let your guard down without facing some subtle retaliation. It takes courage to stick your head or hand up and say that something just doesn't feel right, or safe or that you stay awake at night dreading the next day and 'facing up to your boss'.

Courage empowers us to be true to our values, to embrace honesty and authenticity, and to face life and work with bravery - despite fearing the consequences. It's the force that propels us to see projects through and infuses our work with enthusiasm and energy. In our era of knowledge and fulfilment; purpose-driven work has become essential. Young people in particular, are looking for work that fulfills them on a personal and professional level, where they can truly be themselves, and work collaboratively with a shared sense of purpose.

Courage at work is a foundational character strength, igniting the fire within us to achieve greatness and be the person that others want to work for, or have on their team. Some organizations understand this and cultivate an environment where courage is part of the job, and people can fulfill their talents, their passions, and their potential. Having courage at work means accepting that you may damage your professional reputation by admitting a mistake, but doing it anyway. An example of this is the NASA astronaut who risked her career to rectify a million-dollar possible error just 30 minutes before a launch. She did the right thing, despite what was at stake.

Can all businesses create the right conditions for courage, authenticity and purpose to flourish in the workplace? This is where courage and kindness fit in.

Courage and Kindness stifle Toxic Behaviours

Toxic workplaces are where honesty is discouraged, or where values of the workforce don't align with the culture. Where people sense danger or risk about stating a view. Summoning courage to speak up or act according to your beliefs in this environment, can be daunting. Fear of financial repercussions or damage to your reputation at work as the one 'making a fuss', can deter moral courage. Courage at work is not limited to physical bravery but encompasses moral and social dimensions. It's about standing up to abusive power, particularly within toxic work cultures. The definition of courage at work involves acting courageously in the face of a harmful environment. It's distressing to realise that many workplace environments are actually bad for people. Work is often a stressful envionment where people feel harrassed or pressured. Millions are spent each year on employee sick leave, on reducing absenteeism at work, and creating a healthier environment where people thrive, not strive or worse, barely survive. Sickness rates have jumped in the last decade, and currently at their highest with roughly 8 days a year absent compared to 6 in 2019. (CIPD report on wellbeing, 2023). You could however look at this with a more supportive lens. They also talk about the 'always on' culture, so does this actually sound fairly reasonable to take a day off when you're ill rather than drag yourself in as you may have done previously? The question here though, is how you define ill. If this means you are feeling stressed, anxious and having sleepless nights as you feel subjected to harrassment at work - where does this fit in with the average employee wellbeing programme. Yoga sessions or free apples at work are great but mask one of the largest factors behind stress at work. Relationships with managers.

The Psychology behind Kind Leadership

Kindness at work is sometimes extrapolated into not being strong, of not being professional, or worse, allowing yourself to be taken advantage of. For example, letting someone go home rather than contribute to the monthly report as they have an special family dinner. This can be seen as a kind personal guesture rather than a professional emotionally-aware manager who trusts the team member and knows that loyalty goes both ways. The research identifies six qualities for kind managers:

  • Authenticity

  • Compassion

  • Gratitude

  • Humility

  • Humor

  • Integrity

These qualities sounds more like a great leader that anyone would like to work for. In the words of President Obama to his 2016 interns at the White House,

"be kind, be useful, be fearless."

The definitions in organizational psychology for kindness are usually around organizational citizenship behaviors (OCB) or being prosocial. In a positive and forward-thinking organization, it's these types of behaviors that are recognized and rewarded. They include, for instance, volunteering, collaboration, inclusion, and acting with empathy and compassion for people, in their lives both inside and outside of work. Leaders set up a framework to enable a common understanding of expected behaviors, often a vision or a set of values or behaviors. For example, "We treat everyone with dignity" or "We learn from mistakes rather than blame people." Going back to the NASA astronaut, both her courage and the organization's culture created an environment where speaking up was safe.

Creating a Non-Toxic Culture of Engaged, Healthy Employees

The literature points to kind organizations being better organizations, specifically in that they attract talent, and they retain and engage great employees. The 'Great Places to Work' ranked ]the 100 best companies to work for on employee well-being and a culture of inclusion, purpose, listening, caring, and empathy. Interestingly, nearly 90% of these employees felt like they can be themselves, as opposed to just 64% at an average workplace. The personal is in the best companies is, in fact, professional. American Express's vision includes six statements, including "We do what's right" and "We need different views". Microsoft's excellence in management training is 'Model, Coach, Care'.

So why is kindness a word that is batted back as "well I couldn't suggest a kindness training to my board of directors, could I?" Well. Possibly now is the time to think about it. Companies' practices are increasingly transparent and accountable and whichever word you prefer to use, there are few organisations who can afford to have a reputation for being unkind towards their staff. Making your staff ill with stress, with pressure, or worry has to be the definition of modern-day psychological slavery.

Leaders and managers play a crucial role here. Consultative and supportive leadership style fosters psychological safety and encourages employees to be brave, to step out of their comfort zone, to point out what could be an error, to go against the party line. It also takes courage to say "yep, I'm not happy with how I'm being treated, or my colleagues, this needs to be addressed'.

Organizational psychologists use the analogy of workplaces as living organic systems, where random acts of kindness and small courageous acts 'create an immune response' (Schilpzland et al, 2015) in larger companies. This shields against internal power dynamics, bullying bosses, or corrupt leadership. Courage, kindness and compassion becomes ingrained in the organizational DNA, creating a ripple effect that replaces toxic behaviors and cultures with positive, healthy ones.

Courage is the driving force that can lead to a kind, compassionate workplace. It's about leaders and managers creating an environment where individuals feel safe to speak up and act courageously for the greater good, resulting in a healthier and more ethical workplace culture. One you can feel great about going to work for, and one that makes you feel great.


Schilpzand, P., Hekman, D. R., & Mitchell, T. R. (2015). An inductively generated typology and process model of workplace courage. Organization Science, 26(1), 52–77.

Ella is a trained, accredited Life Coach & licenced Firework Career Coach. She has a background in marketing, internal and change communications, with experience across large corporates to smaller charities. She uses a positive psychological approach to coaching & consultancy 07597157194


bottom of page