Fix your organization’s toxic culture

What’s the scariest movie of all time?

It’s The Conqueror.

How can a Hollywood Technicolor film from 1956 be the scariest movie of all time? Here’s how:

  • John Wayne stars as… Genghis Khan. No, I am not making that up.
  • Did I mention that John Wayne plays the Mongol Genghis Khan?
  • John Wayne. Genghis Khan.

That alone should be enough. But wait! There’s more!

  • The movie was filmed partly on location in Utah, where the red sandstone of Snow Canyon stands in for the Mongolian steppes.

Let’s look at that.

Photo of a red rock formations
Snow Canyon, Utah
Source: Staplegunther at English Wikipedia / CC BY-SA (
Picture of a horse rider in a green field
Mongolian Steppes
Source: "user:InvictaHOG / Public domain"

  • Not surprisingly, the story bears as much resemblance to history as John Wayne does to a Mongol or Utah does to the Mongolian steppes.
  • All those inaccuracies aside, it is simply a very, very bad movie. It crops up in discussions of the worst movies ever made and Wayne’s performance was panned.

I tried to watch it once and the only thing I remember was John Wayne capturing Susan Hayward and treating her like chattel. I think I went into a kind of fugue state after that.

The movie would just be a another largely-forgotten studio system piece except for one fact: one of the filming locations in Utah, near the town of St George, was 137 miles downwind of ongoing US above-ground nuclear tests held at the Nevada Test Site starting in 1951. Part of the filming of The Conqueror took place on soil contaminated with radioactive fallout from the tests.

The cast and crew knew about the contamination, too. One oft-printed photo from the set shows John Wayne with a Geiger counter. However, no one at the time, and certainly not the general public, fully understood the dangers of this environmental exposure, although they had enough information to be concerned. More importantly, the federal government assured people living in these areas that they were safe.

To make matters worse, though, when production moved to Hollywood, producer Howard Hughes (yes, that Howard Hughes) had tons of the radioactive dirt hauled into the sound stage so the color would match to the location shots, thus not only prolonging exposure of the cast and crew but also closing them indoors with the radioactive dust and contaminating the sound stage.

By 1980, 25 years after filming, of the 220 cast and crew members who worked on the production, at least 91 had developed cancer and 46 had died from it, including stars John Wayne and Susan Hayward and director Dick Powell. While these rates are slightly higher than the national averages, debate continues as to whether or how much the radiation exposure during filming contributed to the elevated numbers.

The statistically significant increased cancer rates in permanent residents of St George and other “downwinders” of the Nevada Test Site carry no such uncertainty, though. Legislation passed by Congress in 1990 admitted that various agencies in the federal government had knowingly lied to and endangered its workers and the public for decades, in numerous cases related to the US nuclear arms program, including fallout from the Nevada Test Site.

During his decline, after the deaths of Wayne and Hayward, Howard Hughes reportedly felt guilty about the possible long-term health impact on the cast and crew and he withdrew the film from circulation until his death.

And that is why The Conqueror is a horror movie.

Toxicity in engineering teams and tech companies is a particularly hot topic right now, with increased public focus on the still-glaring lack of diversity in the industry. While that form of toxicity is particularly pernicious, cruel, harmful, and destructive, it comprises just one cluster of toxic contamination.

I like the duck-typing, “I know it when I see it” definition from this post, “Toxicity is apparent when an environment regularly takes away your energy to be productive or enthusiastic,” although it lacks the weight of the extremes of damage possible.

Toxic environments kill productivity and morale. Prolonged, severe, or targeted toxicity can damage people.

While some manifestations pertain directly to how some team members may (mis)treat their peers, overtly or not, at other times, it could be less ad hominem and more about normalized dysfunctions around engineering practice and decision-making that prevent quality work, or sometimes any work, from getting done. These counterproductive behaviors could take variations on that include the following forms:

  • Repeated nitpicking of pull requests, proposed changes, project designs, etc., often in a back-and-forth manner. This behavior wastes time and energy and is often targeted against specific people or teams, either as a way to exert control, a stalling tactic, or a way to undermine others.
  • Always throwing blame on another person or team, even in a supposedly “blameless” culture. This behavior may stem from an underlying absence of psychological safety in the organization’s culture, or the blame-thrower could just be a bad actor.
  • Incident post-mortems focused on identifying a few superficial causes and proposing a few superficial changes, usually by means of additional and pointless process. This approach ignores what are often underlying cultural issues that created the breeding ground for poor engineering quality, or people who cannot or will not do their jobs effectively.
  • Lack of alignment of priorities and current work, usually between teams but sometimes within teams. Two people may end doing the same task that only needs to be done once, or one group will make changes incompatible with another’s priorities and effort. This obviously wasteful situation would seem like simply poor communication, which it often is, but it can also be the result of ineffective management or, again, a bad actor or team who does only what they want to do without acknowledging the bigger picture.
  • Excluding stakeholders from critical conversations. A stakeholder for any engineering project includes anyone who not only may benefit or use the result, but also those who will need to contribute any work to it. (Infrastructure or operational teams often get excluded from these conversations.)
  • Shutting down opinions. Sure, management says everyone’s voice matters. But if they never seem to act on the suggestions or recommendations of any but a handful of people, or worse, allow those elect few to shut others down, that message is bullshit.
  • A “no” culture, where proposals tend to be shot down immediately, especially if they do not come from the “right” people. I was at Yahoo! when Marissa Mayer became CEO. I remember in one of her earlier all-hands on encouraging corporate productivity, she told people not to go looking for “no.” She meant that people should get the appropriate sign-offs from relevant stakeholders only, and not from people who had no real involvement. I was unimpressed with this message, because what she failed to see was that saying “no” was pre-programmed into large swaths of Yahoo! management. Telling people not to be the person who always says “no” was a more-needed message at that time.

These counterproductive behaviors can be obviously counterproductive or damaging, or sometimes they could be normally healthy practices taken to such an extreme, they have the opposite effect. Those good-behaviors-gone-bad can be much more difficult to recognize and counter.

Individual contributors can sometimes mitigate some of these situations on their own, but in the end, management needs to respond. And because managers are often at the core of perpetuating, if not creating, some of these issues, change has to be systemic, even if it initially seems to be localized to a single team.

I cannot say this enough: if any single team or even if one single person consistently demonstrates toxic behavior with impunity, you have a toxic culture. They are wasting someone’s time and quite probably causing real personal harm. If the human toll does not provide enough motivation, then look at the business toll. Work is not getting done, and when it does get done, it will likely be subpar. People will leave the company just to get away from that hell, and they will probably not be the people you want to see go.

If the toxicity seems to stem from patterns of behavior of otherwise genuinely well-meaning and capable people, the toxicity may be woven into the culture, and that needs to be addressed. Culture change is hard, but unhealthy engineering cultures are inefficient and ineffective.

Fix your toxic culture. Deal effectively with bad actors. Have difficult conversations. Empower people trying to do the right thing, to speak up and move the needle, and support them when they do. Don’t make promises you won’t keep and don’t lie. Just do it.