Is Toxic Masculinity Killing Your Corporate Culture? Coaching Can Help

CoachHub · 7 October 2022 · 6 min read

What is toxic masculinity?

Toxic masculinity is a culture of negative behaviors born out of the misuse of traditional masculine values.

Also referred to as a ‘masculinity contest culture’, this kind of behavior creates an environment of competition, disrespect and greed. Power struggles, microaggressions and a dog-eat-dog work style are characteristic of a workplace dominated by toxic masculinity.

We are seeing a shift in workplace culture that was previously dominated by masculine values with a rising focus on employee mental health, work-life balance, diversity and inclusion and female empowerment. Past decades called for a ruthless work ethic and an overly assertive personality to get ahead. Today, compassion and emotional intelligence are being increasingly valued.

There is still much work to do with 54.5% of workers indicating a toxic situation in just the first three weeks at their organization. The campaign against it is bringing much-needed balance into workplace environments and gives people permission to speak out against disrespectful behaviors. While the demand to end it is a worthy (and perhaps overdue) campaign, it is vital not to miss a key message highlighted by the SHRM: “The fight against toxic masculinity is not a campaign against men; it’s a campaign for men to feel they can step outside the man box”.

Toxic masculinity examples

  • Men discuss the appearance of the women in the office
  • A woman speaks up after a toxic comment was made and men respond with “relax, it was just a joke”
  • Men interrupt or talk over women
  • Man taking any opportunity to make something sexual

Toxic masculinity phrases

  • “Man up”
  • “That’s just how business gets done”
  • “That’s a woman’s job”
  • “Dog-eat-dog”
  • “Show no weakness”
  • “Work comes first”
  • “You’re being over-sensitive”
  • “That’s sissy stuff”

Effects of toxic masculinity

Toxic masculinity has a huge cost on companies both directly through turnover and lawsuits and indirectly through poor workplace culture and poor employee wellbeing.

  • Women and minorities feel they must work harder to prove themselves. Women often face backlash for displaying masculine dominant behaviors such as assertiveness and anger.
  • Diversity & inclusion efforts are undermined. A culture of toxic masculinity and a culture of equality cannot co-exist. Any initiatives to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace will be overpowered by the power dynamics of a toxic-male environment.
  • Women feel unsafe, disrespected and uncomfortable at work. They will be less likely to share ideas, speak their minds and stand up for themselves.
  • Employee turnover will increase. Employee loyalty will not exist in a toxic work environment and employees will be easily swayed by external job offers. Alexander Alonso, SHRM chief knowledge officer claims “toxicity attributable to excessive masculinity yields turnover in 3 out of every 10 situations in my experience”.
  • A sexist climate can emerge where women are victims of patronizing behavior; harassment and bullying, including sexual harassment, social humiliation and intimidation.
  • Males suffer too. The culture of toxic masculinity prevents men from seeking help, guidance and support. They will be far less likely to seek help for mental health issues for this would be seen to be ‘emasculating’.
  • Relationship building within the company will suffer. Such a toxic culture impacts genuine relationships from forming as little trust and respect are present.
  • Hyper-competitive cultures lead to aggressive behaviors, taking unnecessary risks and working extreme hours. While it may increase short-term productivity, it will eventually cause employees to burn out and have a lower quality of life.
  • Poor work-life balance will cause employees to disengage and resent their professional life. This can also lead to higher rates of illness and depression among both male and female employees.

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Masculinity is not toxic

As the voices against it get louder it is vital that one important message is also heard, masculinity is not toxic.

Masculine nature contributes courage, direction, discipline and protection to the workplace and has a worthy place in society. Toxic masculinity stems from the wounded aspects of masculinity where such traits are expressed through a pained individual and encouraged by a negative culture.

Healing it will not happen with a campaign aimed at shaming men for their masculine traits. The campaign against toxic masculinity should aim firstly, to recognize toxic behavior stemming from a toxic culture and secondly, act as a statement that such culture is no longer tolerated. The campaign itself can become toxic when it seeks to suppress any presence of masculinity and shames the expression of positive masculinity. The purpose of such a revolution is to create a workplace, and society, where everyone feels valued and included.

Masculinity, like anything else, has a dark side. The dark side of anything can only be expressed if the environment allows it. Where you see toxic masculinity you will find a toxic culture that has gone unchecked. The calls to end it must serve as a campaign more against toxic culture than masculinity itself. Once this is achieved the campaign can be of immense value, especially to men. This shift in culture offers men an end to having to live up to impossible masculine ideals that have forced them to suppress emotion, ‘show no fear’ and adopt disrespectful attitudes towards women.

We are already healing toxic masculinity, by the very fact that the term exists and is so widely used. It is important that the trend continues in a positive direction and fulfills its intention of cultivating more compassion and acceptance in the workplace.

When does masculinity become toxic?

Masculinity becomes toxic when a man uses the advantages and strengths associated with the masculine to assert his dominance and gain power and influence.

Masculinity has turned toxic when:

  • Men feel obliged to conform to gender norms
  • An overly competitive culture exists
  • Vulnerable emotions are suppressed and stronger emotions of pride and anger are exaggerated 
  • A disrespectful dialogue toward women is allowed

How can coaching help?

Assess the culture

The first step to improving the workplace environment is to get a clear view of the existing culture. Relying on leadership and management to evaluate their employees and themselves may lead to biased and inaccurate results. Coaches can observe and offer honest feedback on which areas of the business display signs of toxic masculinity.

Promotes an open dialogue

Coaches are able to facilitate an honest discussion around workplace culture. Employees may feel more comfortable discussing sexism and sexual harassment with a coach than with their manager. Interactions displaying toxic masculinity are often not reported for fear of repercussions. A coach represents a neutral party and provides employees with a less formal way of reporting instances of harassment, making them feel safer and supported at work.

Correct the culture

Coaches can work with teams to promote a healthier and more empowering workplace culture. In order to reduce this behavior in the workplace, a long-term culture shift must be created. HBR advises creating a work environment “in which mission takes precedence over masculinity”. A coach can be the driver of a new mission-focused workplace culture that is totally incompatible with the rules of toxic masculinity.

Coaching leadership

The behavior of leadership will directly impact the entire company culture. Leaders must be trained to be able to recognize toxic masculinity while knowing how to address such behaviors. Coaches can provide leaders with the tools to deal with toxic situations and cultivate a more empowering and inclusive culture.

The campaign against toxic masculinity reflects one of the many positive changes happening within the modern workplace. The professional world is becoming more inclusive and compassionate for all individuals, with such a trend having a large contribution to this change.

For the workplace to continue to evolve in a positive direction toxic cultures of any form must be addressed. Having a strong shared mission that contradicts it can prevent such a culture from gaining steam within an organization. With such a significant cost to company culture and employee morale, any efforts to reduce toxic masculinity is a worthwhile investment.

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Cathy Stapleton
Cathy is an Irish writer based in Berlin, Germany who is passionate about using words to inspire growth. As a certified mindfulness facilitator and performance coach, Cathy aims to create work that helps people connect with themselves and heighten their awareness. When she is not writing she is usually running in nature, meditating or contemplating an existential crisis.

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