Here’s How To Identify Toxicity In Your Startup – And How To Fix It

Recently, UK brewery upstart Brewdog found itself in hot water when almost 100 of its former and current employees wrote an open letter accusing co-founder James Watt of fostering a “culture of fear” in which bullying and prejudice were commonplace. Brewdog says that the company has “always tried to do the best by its team.” 

Only a few months previous, IDEO (a global design agency working with high-profile clients including) faced similar accusations. A former employee wrote a blog piece in which he shared this experience (and the experience of other alumni) about what it was like to work at IDEO. Their stories accuse the agency of  “gaslighting, micro-aggressions, bullying, and years of unprocessed workplace trauma”.

What connects the reported high-profile cases of toxicity in the workplace is not only a strong company culture, but the accompanying prevalence of fear. Fear to question the accepted way of doing things, fear to express your hesitations or feelings — and fear of the consequences if you do. 

Psychological safety is key  

So when does fear creep into working cultures? And how can we stop fear from leading to toxicity?

Organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson defines team psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” That could be feeling able to speak your mind, suggest a new feature idea, flag a potential engineering problem, question an accepted operations process — all without fear of being shot down, ignored or made to feel like an outsider. 

It’s not enough to hope for psychological safety: in order to happen, it needs to be actively measured, written into company policy and emotionally rewarded. 

High levels of psychological safety turn out to be a proven characteristic of high-performing teams and are linked to lower turnover. But it’s not enough to hope for psychological safety: in order to happen, it needs to be actively measured, written into company policy and emotionally rewarded. 

Spill ( is an all-in-one mental health support that integrates with Slack. Businesses that use Spill give their employees access to therapy within days of signing up (as opposed to months with the NHS) and for free at the point of use. In this year alone, 12,000 people have gained access to therapy via Spill. 

Despite being a business focused on mental health in the workplace, it’s also necessary for us to put in place measures to promote psychological safety to protect our own team against toxicity. We do this in a few ways. 

  • Every quarter, we measure psychological safety in our teams with a questionnaire asking people to rate how comfortable they feel challenging each other’s approaches, and how easy they find it to ask for help. 
  • We use Spill’s ‘Wall of Praise’ feature to remind team members to give each other unconditional praise through Slack each week — as well as with team exercises that help foster vulnerability and understanding. 
  • We also spend a lot of time – thought exercises and socials – to build trust and respect between team members. 



Practical steps to promote psychological safety

There are practical steps that those in senior positions, in particular, can do to start promoting psychological safety in their teams today. Interpersonal risk taking is central in this in order for employees to feel like they can do it too. If you’re a manager, set yourself a challenge over the next week to introduce one of these new behaviours:

  • Say ‘I don’t know’ in front of other people — we so rarely hear this during our formative years (from parents or teachers) and it has such a profound impact on employees. It demonstrates openness and rallies against a culture of perfectionism.
  • Be clear with your work-life boundaries — telling the team you’re clocking off after an end-of-day meeting, not emailing on evenings or weekends, and saying when they won’t be able to do something on time. All this helps employees to set better boundaries themselves.
  • Admit to your mistakes and failures — this can be done in a light-hearted or serious way, but the important thing is to be open about when you did something wrong, demonstrating that it’s not the end of the world if an employee were to do the same.
  • Ask for criticism and invite conflict — hoping that people will feel comfortable giving feedback or questioning those above them in seniority isn’t enough. It’s the responsibility of those who are more senior to ask for constructive criticism, logic-checking and debate.

Psychological safety is about far more than maintaining the wellbeing of your teams. As a founder, creating an environment free from fear is critical to ensuring a company functions in a healthy and productive way. Psychological safety allows people to raise problems earlier, suggest changes to processes and make off-the-cuff suggestions that might just end up being game-changing.

When it comes to preventing toxic work culture in your company, proactively stamping out fear is the best place to start.

Written by Calvin Benton, Founder of Spill, a Slack integration that provides all-in-one mental health support to employees. 

Meet the CEO: Gavin Dhesi, CEO of Spill - UKTN (UK Tech News)