Toxic Bosses: lessons from the original sin for modern times

Explore the lasting impact of toxic behavior in the workplace and discover timeless solutions for effective leadership at every level.

by Nick Van Langendonck

Several examples of toxic leadership surfaced in the media in Belgium this year, from Plopsaland to VRT. I argue in this article that those who want to improve relationships at work must be willing to face their own flaws and weaknesses first. ‘People expect management to take the first step. But history just proves that the most powerful changes emerge from the grassroots.

(This article is a preview of my book on our organizations and biblical theology to be published in 2024.)

Plopsaland combines the magic of the Studio 100 characters with the fun of many top attractions in a fairytale setting. This is at odds with the painful saga surrounding toxic leadership reported by the media earlier this year. The mission of VRT NWS (Flemish Broadcasting Television) is to inform, inspire and connect Flemish people, but internally conflicts make it impossible to work together. In March, virtually the entire top of the online editorial staff was put home.

In a search for explanations and solutions, experts trot out two observations. First, they note a growing awareness of what constitutes an acceptable management style. That’s positive, and I share that insight with them. However, some experts argue that internal culture is a flousy concept because it is the sum of many variables. Therefore, they argue that systems that surface unsafe behavior work in one company but not in another. I disagree. Toxic behavior is of all times. The “detox recipes” underlying any solution have been known for millennia and applicable everywhere.

To substantiate this thesis, I like to take the reader through one of the world’s oldest myths and an important foundation of our Western culture: the creation myth in the Bible.

Toxic behavior is the Fall of Man

In the creation myth of the Bible, man is created in the image of a universal God, a psychological concept that condenses all the good in all people across all times into a transcendent figure who transforms chaos into order, evil into good. Out of this purest goodness, Adam and Eve are created. Their calling? He invites them to follow His example. He asks them to care for this harmonious and flourishing garden, to develop its untapped potential, to nurture creation and allow it to thrive.

But a dark creature appears: a rebellious, talking snake. This one is on a mission to destroy all the good that has been created and to let chaos rule again. Then the most fateful dialogue in human history takes place. The wily snake slithers out of the apple tree and confronts Primal Mother Eve during one of her walks through the garden. Two exchanges of barely fifteen words. They sound like the words of toddlers. But they forever determine the fate of man: the Fall. Eve and Adam are not satisfied with what they have. They long to be like God. They choose self-interest over the harmony of the Garden and are banished. Since then, mankind has been looking for a way back to the peaceful and beautiful Garden of Eden.

Beneath this seemingly childlike simplicity lies an important lesson about the human psyche: the snake represents the dark side of our personality that every human being develops throughout life. Jung and Freud described it as man’s shadow and subpersonalities. It consists of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, traumas and instincts. These drag us, independently or even in opposition to our free will, in different directions.

Man is born pure. But gradually we bump into the challenges of life: losing a loved one too early, a lingering illness, a betrayal … There are no exceptions. Everyone experiences one or more traumatic things. As a result, our childlike naivete evolves. We grow older and wiser, but also more fearful, suspicious and cynical. The tragedy of life permeates us. We realize that even the best can drown in the darkest emotions – fear, greed, lust for power and jealousy – and fall prey to a malicious perception of the world. I think we see today in the workplace what happens when such emotions take over. Every day, people at all levels of the organization make the same mistake as Adam and Eve. They allow themselves to be seduced by the serpent and place their self-interest above that of the collective of the organization with all the consequences.

The ‘always-on’ performance culture is the snake

I imagine the working man as an actor on a stage. Work takes place on a stage with a set in a room with lighting, ventilation and acoustics. The specific conditions of the organization greatly influence our decisions and actions. They bring out the best or the worst in the acting person.

In the stories of the Bible, power and wealth are the serpent’s ultimate lures. Let that be precisely what drives our organizations. They push us to develop a culture of control and performance that puts business leaders, managers, employees and workers alike under often unsustainable pressure.


In some cases, these systems drive even the best people to commit heinous acts. They cultivate the exercise of power, however small, to destabilize someone consciously or unconsciously, psychologically or physically. They encourage actions, as at Plopsa and VRT, that go straight against the collective ideal the organization has set for itself.

In such cases, the CEO is usually pilloried. That is just a curtain call. It is not, in my opinion, a structural solution. The CEO is just as much a victim of a work environment in which the snake thrives so much. The chances of his successor falling into the same trap are extremely high. Moreover, any fellow business leader, manager, employee or worker who blindly obeys the orders of a toxic leader or conceals his actions, even though they know they are contrary to the collective ideal of the organization, is, in my opinion, partly responsible. Because every time someone gets away with toxic behavior, the snake lays more eggs in the fabric of the organization.

Aligning personal goals with organizational goals is the fourth guiding principle. Teal Partners’  organizational structure is designed to mimic a human cell, where self-managed project teams take center stage, connecting their customers directly with their talented developers. Meanwhile, internal teams focus on handling operational aspects, ensuring a smooth functioning of the company.

Yes, an organization can detoxify!

For me, the way back for people and organizations to the figurative Eden begins with individual awareness and personal responsibility, not only of the toxic manager, but of every business leader, manager, worker and employee of his or her own contribution to toxicity in his or her organization.

If I want to improve myself and my relationships at work, I must be willing to face my own flaws, blind spots and weaknesses first. I must first overcome my own demons and find my way back to my own Garden of Eden. Only then will a broader detox become possible. The more business leaders, managers, employees and workers take that step, the closer the organization gets to its own collective ideal.

Don’t expect the first steps to come from management. History proves that the most powerful changes have come from the bottom up. Look again at the stories in the Bible. It is no coincidence that the heroes are always ordinary and flawed people like you and me. Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah and finally Jesus grow into servant leaders who show the people how things can be done differently. Their ingredients for a detox and their signposts to the Garden of Eden boil down to this: (1) strive for the supreme good in every workplace interaction, (2) repent for your own sins, (3) forgive those of your colleagues and (4) repent.

These solutions are ancient. We just need to learn to apply them in our businesses? They should be at the heart of any system that seeks to address unsafe behavior. Without them, any initiative will bleed to death. This, of course, runs counter to the established management tradition. As long as one person is a tool for another to “get the most out of,” toxic behavior is inevitable.

The Genesis story also points us toward the only approach I consider sustainable. Approach every colleague with care as if they are the spitting image of a God, including and especially those at the bottom of the hierarchy. Let every interaction in the workplace start from the well-being and self-reliance of colleagues. Continuously cultivate relationships and diversity within the organization, just as a gardener tends his garden daily. That is our calling. That is our way back to the Garden of Eden.

One man who stopped lying could bring down a tyranny, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is right. Moses took on the Egyptian Pharaoh, Jesus took on the Romans and established Jewish leaders. Nelson Mandela stopped lying about the apartheid regime and Gandhi about the British Empire. In the corporate world, too, the examples of ordinary people standing up and bringing about the most impressive corporate changes are becoming more numerous.

Unbossers Partner and Home Nurse Jos de Blok, for example, denounced the tyranny of the healthcare sector in the Netherlands. From that, Buurtzorg was born.A grassroots movement that grew into the largest and most successful home care organization in the country. They are proving that things can be done differently. Also our Unbossers Partner, NK Chaudhary, founder of Jaipur Rugs, was a man with a passion for rugs. From the ground up, he let the tyranny of the carpet industry in India, which used the “untouchable Dalits caste” as slaves, reverberate. From that, Jaipur Rugs was born.Forty years later, this company is the largest producer of hand-woven carpets in India.Through their platform, 40,000 weavers, mostly women, from the poorest parts of India manage to work humanely and build a life for themselves and their families.

These and many other examples prove that it is possible to transform the performance culture into a financially sound well-being culture. All it takes is one person in the organization who has the courage to overcome the snake within. Any reader of this article can be that person. We are capable of much more than we dare to think.

Nick Van Langendonck

This article is a preview of my book on our organizations and biblical theology to be published in 2024.

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